Robin Hardy is among the least prolific of filmmakers. Known for his 1973 debut The Wicker Man, which was written by Anthony Shaffer, he waited more than a decade to deliver a second, The Fantasist (1986). He has been shopping around this project (variously known as The Riding of the Laddie and Cowboys for Christ) as a follow-up (sort of remake, sort of sequel) to his lasting cult for some time before getting it made. It’s, to say the least, a queer duck – though, sadly, not strange enough to be that entertaining. Before the FrightFest screening, Hardy told the audience it was all right to laugh – whereupon they didn’t much, because the few elements that might be seen as deliberately humorous (kilted butler Clive Russell getting stabbed in the goolies with broken glass) aren’t that well-handled. Again, a representative fundamentalist Christian is lured to a Pagan Scots community for a sacrificial ceremony which is supposed to keep the economy ticking over and the trap closes in on the boob, with a climax that involves a big bonfire (yes, it’s shaped like a tree this time).
This time, the patsy is Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol), an American Christian pop singer who used to be a Britney Spears-like trailer trash lolita but is now sporting a silver purity ring, singing hymns (not many original songs, this time) and intends to go door to door in Scotland spreading the Word. Steve (Henry Garrett), her cowboy-hatted fiancé, is also along for the mission, and has a backstory involving gambling and having his hat shot by his drunken father before being born again. When these dim bulbs are hailed as ‘the Laddie’ and ‘the Queen of the May’, they don’t spot any un-Christian associations, let alone twig that this means dying. The laird (Graham McTavish) is a bald panto villain whose nuclear power plant once had a leak which has rendered the population mostly sterile – so, the Laddie has to be seduced into impregnating a local temptress (Honeysuckle Weeks) before being ripped apart by the local hunt (a pagan variant already tried and tested in The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and Tam Lin). Oddly, Beth is dragged to the wicker tree, where she shows her spirit by tipping flammable oil over the laird and setting fire to him, though the long-term plan is to have her skinned and stuffed to join a gallery of previously preserved queens (we get the old House of Wax bit of the broken statue with a skeleton inside). It’s careful not to be an explicit sequel to The Wicker Man, perhaps for copyright reasons, though Christopher Lee (billed as ‘Old Man’) might be his Lord Summerisle character: he is in the film FOR ONE SHOT greenscreened into a flashback, explaining not much to the young laird, and generally giving one of his least significant cameos in a movie that ought to be built around him.
The participant this really misses is Shaffer, who was capable of character depth and balance, and realised he was crafting a suspense story. Edward Woodward’s puritanical cop was dour, not really likeable, but a proper Christian, trying to do the right thing and lured to his doom by a cult playing on his best instincts (he thinks he’s trying to save a child). The representative fundamentalists here are cartoon figures, always silly, never convincing. They flail about foolishly towards an end the whole audience is already in on and their come-uppance has no horrific or ecstatic charge. And the pagans are just a bunch of leering caricatures, too. This isn’t the eccentric, perhaps-cult atrocity that the Neil LaBute remake of The Wicker Man was; it’s more like a quickie imitation made by the same hand, and does less with the material than such Wicker Man-influenced works as Darklands, Arlington Road or Puffball, let alone the two other FrightFest choices that draw on the original (A Lonely Place to Die, Kill List). I suspect the waters will close over this one.