How do you better a film that has accrued a mythology that no new product can possibly match? And if that film was your own, released almost 40 years ago and literally buried by the film company that bankrolled it before its remarkable resurrection as "the greatest cult film Britain ever produced", would you really want to go back to make a weirdly distorted mirror-image of it, right down to the title? And would the sacrifice here be that of your own reputation?
These are questions that do not seem to occupy Robin Hardy, the octogenarian director of The Wicker Tree, as he cheerfully discusses its release. His follow-up, or "spiritual sequel', as it has been dubbed, to The Wicker Man is an eccentric, if bluntly effective instrument. Based on his 2006 novel, Cowboys for Christ, it throws a couple of Texan innocents into the heart of a pagan darkness orchestrated by the local laird, and lets deadly games commence. As Hardy says, it's not a matter of if, but a matter of how and when; but you will have your sacrifice.
"It's a black comedy," he asserts crisply. "It's not a horror film. Everyone thinks it is, but it's not."
"I got a bit caught with that." Hardy, talking at his central London home, cuts a sprightly figure, energetically fielding The Wicker Tree's upcoming theatrical and DVD release with pre-production on a new project, working-titled The Wrath of the Gods, which draws not on the Celts but Norse mythology. Which is even more violent.
The Wicker Tree, like its antecedent, deals with the battle between two magical systems – Christianity and Celtic Paganism – though one might add a third, the cult of The Wicker Man itself, whose mythology Hardy's film plays with like a cat pawing its prey. Instead of no apples, it's a case of no babies, as a result of a leak at the local nuclear facility which has polluted the groundwater, the loins of the local women, and the sacred river they bathe in.
It's a neat ecological twist, and by pitting modern US Christian fundamentalism against an older, more knowing paganism, Hardy gets to exercise some social satire on the nature of power, belief, faith and naivety, while revelling more in the spirit of high camp than high magic.
The parallels between the two are myriad, and often bizarrely, deliberately skewed. In Hardy's "game within a game within a game", instead of an uptight Christian copper we get onetime pop nymphet Beth (Brittania Nicol) and her cowboy boyfriend Steve (Henry Garrett), their teenage lusts bound by chastity rings, travelling to Scotland on a mission to bring the Lord to the heathens of Glasgow. There they meet indifference, failure, and, in the figure of the Laird of Tressock (Graham McTavish), their ultimate fate as central figures in the citizens' enthusiastic May Day activities.
Aside from a very few successes, sequels and remakes tend to be cursed operations. Consider Neil LaBute's Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage. The Wicker Tree may not equal the cult of the original, but it does a good job of subverting and celebrating it at the same time.
When Hardy took The Wicker Tree to market at Cannes last year, they didn't get it. "So we took it to the Fantasia festival in Montreal," he says, "and they adored the film; the man who ran it said, 'it's almost completely off the wall', and they got it. That's exactly what happened with The Wicker Man."
'The Wicker Tree' is out now in selected cinemas and on DVD and Blu-rayReuse content