SEAT AT THE BACK

SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

'The two Ws' - THE WICKER TREE & THE WOMAN @ FRIGHTFEST, LEICESTER SQUARE, 27th AUGUST 2011

 
 

THE WICKER TREE and THE WOMAN @ FRIGHTFEST, LEICESTER SQUARE, 27th AUGUST 2011


These reviews are written as part of a post-festival debate in the Seat at the Back bar. Plot details will be discussed over a beer. There will be spoilers ahead, sitting on a bar stool  ~ please watch before reading!  


A double-barrelled review experiment!


The ending of 'The Wicker Tree', a film that explores similar themes to the original classic 'The Wicker Man' from 1973, is what you might well expect it to be; there's a wicker effigy and a burning. In the original it was Edward Woodward, here there's a twist and the person who goes up in smoke, wasn't meant to.
There are plenty more twists at the end of this random, often very funny, sinister treat.
 
After The  Wicker Tree's expected shock ending, some of the horror of the moment is tapered by another sing-along, of which the film contains many.

There are lots of songs in 'The Woman' too - the chap responsible being Sean Spillane, an old college friend of the film's director Lucky McKee. Played from start to finish, the songs risk giving the film an MTV pop video feel that The Woman has nothing in common with - this is a film earthy and rough and lacking in sheen. But the songs have a dirty, grimy edge too, that frame the horrific acts on screen.
 
The songs inspired the script - and the script, in development, inspired more new songs with both eventually becoming fused at the spine. Whether you can have too much of a good thing, is up to the viewer to decide; the numerous songs may grate on some after a while  - but McKee clearly wants to experiment with a horror film framed by a singular soundtrack (whisper the words: 'a horror musical') in the same way the original Wicker Man movie attempted much the same. It's a bold move, whatever.


Severer Spoiler alert!

Like The Wicker Tree, the ending of The Woman also has a violent outburst. And much like the downer of The Wicker Tree's ending, here also, the rest of the film is slightly spoiled by the person you really wanted to survive and be protected by 'The Woman' - being killed off by her instead. Never mind - but I thought this character's survival would have made for a better ending.

Carry on reading . .


Both The Woman and The Wicker Tree explore extremes. The Wicker Tree sees two Dallas-based born again Christians - boyfriend and girlfriend wearing chastity rings, which it seems they may have forgotten about on occasion/ in the bedroom - arrive in the small, Scottish border village of Tressock. Like the original Wicker Man movie before it, the villagers aren't happy. They are all infertile for a start, but it's not through lack of trying. In fact, one local village gal, has her heart set on getting pregnant with the local police force; all one of him. She persuades this local bobby to do it five times a night, often with a donkey head on, before setting her sights on the nice young, and often topless, American boy who rides into town.

Brand spanking new actress Brittania Nicol as the young American gospel singer Beth (a former pop star and singer of the clearly very romantic smash hit - 'Trailer Trash Love') is brilliant as the doomed future May Queen of Tressock. The sinister Sir Lachlan Morrison who lords it over the locals in the same way Christopher Lee did in the original, believes that by sacrificing this innocent young virgin, the rest of the village will suddenly become very fertile indeed.


 
 
Christopher Lee, who played the unforgettable Lord Summerisle in the original Wicker was too ill to appear in this follow-up as anything other than a quick glimpse cameo - as an old man talking to the young Lachlan about how all religions think they can change fate in some way, although "none really can" - but "still, we keep trying". The cameo is a nice respectful nod to the original that maybe seems slightly out of place but still brought a big spontaneous cheer from the audience. That, to my mind, means something was worth doing.

In the same way that Lee's character of Lord Summerisle in the original movie thought that a real human sacrifice would bring fertility to the crops, so too does Sir Lachlan here (a nicely understated and slightly naive - deliberately so - performance from creepy and fruity-voiced Graham McTavish). This is a man who believes that doing bad things to America's very own real-life version of a born again Ken and Barbie, newly arrived in the village, will bring forth the babies for all.


 




Slightly bizarrely, the fertility problem the village has - we later find out - is something to do with a nuclear leak into the river. Which doesn't stop that randy local girl who keeps getting it on with the resident copper also managing to get Steve the Celibate skinny dipping in the river with her and losing his chastity ring somewhere inside. Inside the river. One hopes.

The cast of The Wicker Tree sing many traditional folk songs: in pubs, at home, in front of a burning victim - you name it. You get it. There's no single moment to rival the loveliness of the songs and singing of the original however. But there are some very good moments indeed where the music - a particular love of director of both Wicker films, Robin Hardy - really elevates the film to a creepier kind of level.


I hope that Brittania Nicol who plays the dizzy and determined Beth Boothby gets picked up for more film roles soon. She makes the film work as well as it should by keeping a sense of tongue-in-cheekiness to her role; relishing the well-developed character background she's been given as the startled little girl lost, fighting to keep hidden the 'sinful' nature of her previous life before she was 'born again'. She does 'terrified' very well too.

There's a flashback to a long lost video, played as Beth watches in horror from her hotel bed, of her performing the single 'Trailer Trash Love' - a seedy striptease of a song discovered by the local paper. It's hilarious. She gets to tempt and tease two scary-looking bikers in a bar, while waving her denim hotpants in their faces, only for it to all end in a synchronised dance routine - two bikers and one hot chick in a slightly camp line dance.

If you've ever seen 70's sitcom Man About The House, you'll know that Brittania Nicol has a look of Sally Thomsett about her - perfect for both horror and comedy, of which The Wicker Tree warmly embraces both.
The Woman also features a few star turns among the cast, although to be fair, everyone in it is good. Astonishing as 'the woman' - a native wild girl of the Massachusetts woodland (of which I don't think there are all that many) is Polyanna McIntosh. Captured by a dominating dad - a family man who inflicts violent abuse on pretty much all his family all the time, and kept in his cellar, Polyanna has to endure all kinds of abuse (much like the rest of the family of which she seems to have now been signed up to) before it all ends in predictable nastiness and wild, crowd-clapping revenge at the end.

 
McIntosh's role sees her improvise her own made-up language to convey the struggling speech of the wild woman, and her moments of quiet desperation, alongside those of pure rage, are convincing and unnerving in equal measure.
 
The actors playing the children in this family are also incredible - moving to watch; terrifying to see crumble and fall apart. From an aged seven or so youngest daughter, to a terminally troubled teenage daughter and sicko son, to an abused and slapped around mother; this family convey utter hopelessness, sadness and uncertain - or sometimes, shockingly; more certain than we realise - love for their father.







When the family goes down to the cellar to see what their dad has found in the woods; they stand there in disbelief, but also total conformity. Because this is Dad; the man in charge - the guy who everyone loves and is the life and soul of a BBQ, but beneath the surface a violent control freak. He now has a new woman to control freak with - and so we get plenty of scenes of abuse towards his captive trophy in the cellar; symbolic of what he is doing to his family upstairs in the house as well.

Trouble is, his young son is as bad as he is - a 12 or 13 year old kid who has a nice way with pliers and sticking chewing gum (in a nice subtle touch) in the hairbrush of good girls that play basketball better than he does. Young Zach Rand plays the bad seed son, Brian - he deserves to be better known. He will be soon.

Director Lucky McKee also gave us the classic horror movie May that starred a young Angela Bettis, who also turns in a traumatic role here as the abused mother. McKee grew up in a world of real small town poverty and used a video camera to escape to a better reality. In many of his films young actors face-up against teenage angst and horror genre-type torture (physical and mental) and bad things-a-happening vibes. Like Carrie meets Kids; the children of McKee's vision know where they are going, but you can't always like how they get there.

 



Brian hangs out during the day with kids his age, and gets asked out on dates, but he'd rather spend his time with the captured cavegirl in the cellar doing very bad things to her. The teenage daughter of the family; Lauren Ashley Carter as tormented, sallow-eyed Peggy Cleek, who her teacher at school thinks is so mixed up that she simply has to be pregnant (terrifyingly, it's implied later that she may be - even though she has no boyfriend or lover in sight) captures teenage angst (as well as sympathy for the devil woman) absolutely wonderfully. The young actress is simply astounding in this movie. Like Zach Rand who plays her onscreen brother, and Brittania Nicol from The Wicker Tree, these are up-and-coming names we will hopefully hear more of in the years ahead.

At the Q&A after The Wicker Tree, director and writer (of the novel and screenplay) Robin Hardy tells us that there is a lot of humour as well as horror in his film. He wasn't kidding. Whereas the original had dark, sinister, unnerving humour (actually, I adore the original, but I can't say I find it at all humorous - just wonderfully unsettling and a creepy crawly one-big-bad) The Wicker Tree is mostly played for laughs.

After five orgasms in one night with a donkey head on, the local policeman gets to try it for the sixth time that night with a scarf tied to a place "he won't ever have tried it tied to before" - shortly after this scene, an ambulance rushes away from the police station. It is funny. As is the moment when the creepy butler, who rather hilariously looks exactly like Russ Abbott's 'See you Jimmy!' character - 'C.U. Jimmy' (and no, I'm not joking - he really does!) almost has his left testicle taken off by Beth. Mind you, he was trying to inject her with a poison first.

 



There's also a very slapstick moment with a dead cat. No really - you had to be there! The cat licks the poisoned milk intended for Beth and gets taken down to breakfast the next morning by the lady of the manor - still being stroked, despite being as rigid as one of the stuffed animals on the wall, before being dumped in a nearby bin. "We're going to miss him" - says Sir Lachlan, deadpan, before biting on his toast.

Director Robin Hardy did warn us that there would be plenty of laughs ahead. He also told us there would be plenty of horror, and that Christopher Lee told him directly - in that famously black treacly-embalmed voice of his - that there was enough horror in this movie "to melt the bowels of a brass statue". And there is. There's a shocking climatic scene of cannibalism and, yes, actual embalming - as well as random outbreaks of violence, made all the more shocking by the calm of the gorgeous lilting folk songs and speckles of warm, earthy humour. Enough humour to make us drift into occasional Carry On territory for adults, but enough horror to remind us that this man directed one of the all time classic horror movies - The Wicker Man. You can't take that fact lightly.

 




The Wicker Tree has a few standout moments that drive the film into classic horror-seeded barley meadows and fields of corn-ripeness. Especially effective is the setpiece at the end where the born again Christians really come up against the villagers. The biggest monster in this movie is a group of people. Separately they are all less scary. Together they are terrifying. Steve finds himself trapped in an ancient ruin. Beth finds herself trapped in a village where nobody wants to help her. There's something horrid and cruel hanging in the air and it's about to be made real, not something of legend and story.

I felt very uncomfortable in some of these final scenes - I felt trapped. For me, the film worked as a work of horror as a result of the effect it had on me at times. Not all the way through. I think, because the scares don't come all the way through. The Wicker Man didn't really need traditional scares. I think The Wicker Tree maybe embraces the terror a little more literally than the original. But it's no bad thing. As Robin Hardy states: it's not a remake or sequel; it's a film that "shares similarities with the original".

I once read the author/ screenwriter Stephen Volk comment that he hates the word 'reimagining' when it comes to those films that are remakes in all but name, but try to pretend they are doing something different. But I think Hardy's description of The Wicker Tree being a film that "shares similarities" with the original, but is its own lush, fertile nightmare, is a good place to be.

Robin Hardy makes far too few movies; when asked why he has only directed a handful, he tells us that it's because he likes doing other things too; like writing; like concentrating on his love of music. And really, both The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree are horror musicals at heart.

 




You know, at the opening of The Wicker Tree, there's a fabulous tour de force of direction, a single take shot with the camera entering the manor house, and winding its way downstairs; all the way to the deep cavernous kitchen where that creepy butler is splashing blood against the door - blood from an animal kill he is carving up for lunch. I felt like cheering. Robin Hardy - welcome back! And if you don't like it - you'd better watch out as there will be a new 'Wicker' movie coming out soon called, Hardy tells us, 'The Wrath of the Gods.' Not, hopefully, of the critics.

The Woman also has some moments of truly great, outstanding horror, alongside the slow burn build-up - scarred from a deliciously depraved script from McKee and author Jack Ketchum. Especially brutal - a disconcerting act of torture where the dad gets out his gun and blasts it close to the wild woman's ear resulting in an effect that resembles tinnitus for a few minutes. Ugh. It's a very loud movie anyway, so I hope that tinnitus was an effect, and not just the decline of my eardrums after all that screaming and random distorted symbolic feedback.

When teenage daughter Peggy's teacher visits the family home of the oddest family in town, there's also an incredibly depressing prelude to her arrival where poor Mum tells wild-eyed Dad that she's had enough and is leaving him. You can guess what happens next. If you don't want to know, don't read on.

Two punches to the tummy and a blow to the head. If you feel like crying when you read that, join me. And then the teacher arrives. She enters the house. All seems normal, and then...

 




Rough tough horror like this isn't for everyone - I guess the appreciative audience at London Frightfest would be more likely to cheer the gore that splashes into the camera's lens at the end of The Woman, and so they do! Maybe, just maybe - I think this gore could have been toned down a little as it distracts slightly from the moodiness - from the grimness - of the rest of the movie. But only a little.

As mentioned, the film is based on a story by Jack Ketchum, a horror novelist who many other horror novelists - including Stephen King - look up to (and a chap who takes no prisoners when it comes to the shocking underbelly of young and older lives). So - considering the source material, perhaps the blood and guts finale is entirely warranted. Certainly it is effectively yucky, if a little rushed, as if the producer realised that time was ticking on the hire of the farmyard - so hurry up and end this thing already!

The slow-build, ratcheting tension of the rest of the movie, and sudden brutal shocks are the most effective moments of the film. The ending is a crowd-pleaser for sure. But whether needed or not - well, for tonight, yes, the ending goes down a storm (you know you're at London Frightfest when the plucking out of an internal organ gets a big cheer!). 

 
 


 
 
For an audience not as blood-relishing, the gore-filled ending may be less satisfactory - blood and guts can have a best-before-date, and the yucky ending of The Woman could detract from the quite serious musings and quietly brooding horror of much of the rest of the movie. But that's what horror is; something dangerous and not often pretty. As Lucky McKee tells us at the Q&A following the screening; looking directly at the large crowd of appreciative fans hanging on every word: "I make movies for audiences like this" - not for the mainstream, or those likely to be offended.

Cue one very long round of applause, similar to the round of applause given to director Robin Hardy earlier. As I had a final sup from my plastic glass of red wine served to me earlier by an Empire Leicester Square girl dressed up as a zombie; her face smothered with face paint that made the plastic on my glass very slippery and oily-smelling indeed, I think that - as an experience; as two movies that dare to be original and not flirt with the mainstream; as showcases of all that's good in horror cinema - both The Wicker Tree and The Woman were both absolutely horrible. Thank god. Or thank the corn fields and the sister sun, brother moon, gods of the forest and the stars above. That they were.

words: mark gordon palmer

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