Neither remake nor sequel, Robin Hardy’s companion piece to his legendary 1973 “Wicker Man” proves an altogether tamer piece of filmmaking, opting for humor rather than psychological horror. A couple of naive Texas born-agains figure as centerpieces this go-round, while the cult remains largely the same (minus, unfortunately, Christopher Lee). Figuring that the denouement is a foregone conclusion, Hardy offers few surprises, milking anticipation for the moment when his clueless characters finally deduce what the audience already knows. Opened Jan. 27, this rather likable journeyman pic seldom stumbles or soars, content to deliver midrange thrills and yuks.
Previously the trampy singer of “Trailer Trash Love,” Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) is now a gospel-belting missionary. She and her slow-drawling, ex-cardsharp cowboy b.f., Steve (Henry Garrett), set off to bring Jesus to the benighted pagans of Scotland, condescending smiles on their lips and purity-promising rings on their fingers.
Accepting the invitation of a rich nuclear-plant owner who compares himself to Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” (Graham McTavish, disappointingly unthreatening despite his bald pate), the couple find themselves elected “Queen of the May” and “Laddie” by the expansive, welcoming local folk of a quaint Scottish village. This burg is eerily empty of children, a hidden legacy of unloosed nuclear energy, and only blood appeasement to the ancient goddess Sulis promises relief to the barren.
Helmer-scribe Hardy, drawing from his novel “Cowboys for Christ,” gleefully drops knowing satirical elements into the cultural confrontation. One of the pic’s most successful scenes finds the evangelicals and heathens at total if unsuspecting cross-purposes, raising their voices together in rousing choruses of “There’s Power in the Blood of the Lamb”; the hymn’s more sinister references to animal sacrifice are totally lost on Beth, who remains blissful in her assumption that she has religiously scored with the natives.
In the original “Wicker Man,” Edward Woodward’s uptight Calvinist policeman almost attained tragic status, the inherent fanaticism of his traditional religious beliefs almost equal to those of the cult followers. Any attack on the two dumb bunnies at the center of “Tree,” however, amounts to shooting born-agains in a barrel; their aggressively patronizing tolerance (“Maybe you’ve heard of Jesus Christ?”) itself reps an invitation to mayhem.
Yet Hardy does manage to create moments of near-pathos. Beth’s guilty nostalgia over her past slutty singing persona, and Steve’s light-fingered manipulation of a deck of cards to tell the story of Christ, evoke paths not taken and true hidden talents unnaturally diverted. But as the guileless Steve goes galloping across the Scottish countryside, pursued by bloodthirsty villagers, something has definitely been lost in translation.