Beth Boothby (Nicol) is a successful born again evangelical pop singer from Texas. She and her fiance Steve Thompson (Garrett) both wear purity rings and belong to a group known as the "Cowboys for Christ", who travel to "heathen areas" of the world to preach Christianity. The Reverend Moriarty sends them off to travel to Glasgow, hoping to save some souls there. However, they are shocked when they receive a very negative reception, with nobody accepting their pamphlets. The duo are approached by Sir Lachlan Morrison (McTavish) and his wife Delia (Leonard), the laird of the small village of Tressock in the Scottish Lowlands. They invite Beth and Steve to come back with them to preach, but intend them for a more central part in Tressock's May Day celebration.
The villagers of Tressock have become infertile due to the construction of Sir Lachlan's nuclear power plant. While riding a horse, Steve has sex with Lolly (Weeks), a female villager, after finding her bathing naked in a spring. Steve regrets his actions and wants to return home. During a flashback Sir Lachlan remembers a mentor (Lee) from his youth. Meanwhile, a detective named Orlando is sent to Tressock, posing as the local police officer, in order to secretly investigate reports of a pagan cult. Orlando discovers that the people of the village worship the ancient Celtic goddess Sulis from Lolly after having sex with her on multiple occasions.
Beth and Steve decide to begin their preaching at Tressock's May Day celebrations. To impress the locals, they agree to become the local Queen of the May and the Laddie for the festival, not realising the consequences of their decision. Steve is chased by villagers on horseback as part of a ritual and ends up being torn apart. Back in the house of Sir Lachlan, Beame (Russell), the Morrison's butler, attempts to sedate Beth in order to prepare her for her role as the May Queen. He attempted to do so the night before, but the spiked milk killed the Morrisons' cat. Beth attacks Beame and flees, but is captured in town. After discovering Steve's death, Beth confronts Sir Lachlan at the wicker tree. She pushes Lachlan into the structure and sets it on fire, killing Lachlan in the process.
Beth tries to escape from Tressock with the help of one of the few children left in the village. She is captured and is later killed. Her body is preserved and put on display in a room with the previous May Queens. Lolly gives birth to Steve's child and brings a new generation to Tressock for the first time in years. Delia prays to setting sun for the gods to find more men to bring to Tressock to sire more children.Graham McTavish as Sir Lachlan Morrison
Jacqueline Leonard as Delia Morrison
Brittania Nicol as Beth Boothby
Henry Garrett as Steve Thompson
Honeysuckle Weeks as Lolly
Clive Russell as Beame
Prue Clarke as Mary Miller
Leslie Mackie as Daisy
David Plimmer as Jack
Keith Warwick as Donald Dee
Christopher Lee as Old Gentleman
Mark Williams as Paul
In 2002, it was reported that Hardy was working on a film entitled The Riding of the Laddie, said to be in the same genre as The Wicker Man. Sean Astin had signed on as the male lead, with Christopher Lee, LeAnn Rimes and Vanessa Redgrave set to play major roles. Lee had passed the screenplay on to Astin while the two were working on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Ewan McGregor also read the script, and requested a cameo appearance. Of the story, Hardy stated, "It's about a certain kind of American innocence abroad featuring two young born-again Christians. They've made a pact not to have sex before marriage, and they come over here like the Mormons and preach door-to-door. It's a thriller; they get sucked into a dark world. We hope to start in September for a 2003 release." The film was to be shot on location near Glasgow and in Oklahoma.
However, Hardy was ultimately unable to secure funding, and the film was cancelled. He then adapted his screenplay into a novel, which was published as Cowboys for Christ. Hardy felt that writing the novel gave him a much clearer idea of what he wanted to do, and he eventually adapted the novel into the screenplay which was used for The Wicker Tree.
Originally Hardy wrote the part of Sir Lachlan Morrison for Christopher Lee, who played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man. While filming the newest Hammer Production The Resident in New Mexico, Lee injured his back when he tripped over power cables on set. Although very disappointed, Hardy gave the role intended for Lee to Graham McTavish, the actor who had originally been cast as Beame, the Morrisons' butler. Clive Russell plays Beame instead. Lee is still in the film, making a brief cameo appearance as the unnamed "Old Gentleman" who acts as Lachlan's mentor in a flashback. Robin Hardy has stated that fans of The Wicker Man will recognise this character as Lord Summerisle, but Lee himself has contradicted this, stating that they are two unrelated characters.
Joan Collins was originally set to play Lady Delia Morrison when Lee was to play Sir Lachlan Morrison. However, when Lee injured himself and was replaced by the much younger McTavish, Collins was similarly replaced with a younger actress, Jacqueline Leonard.
Filming was due to start in September 2007, but the film was delayed for financial reasons. It was later announced the film would shoot from April 2008 in Dumfries and Galloway. A week before the shoot, Dumfries and Galloway Council announced the filming had been stopped due to financial reasons. Filming eventually started in July 2009 in Edinburgh, Haddington; Gorebridge; Midlothian; and Dallas.
The Wicker Tree went through several title changes before its release, including The Riding of the Laddie, May Day, and Cowboys for Christ. The film had its premiere at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal in July 2011. Anchor Bay handled U.S. distribution, and the film received a limited release on 27 January 2012. No wide theatrical release date has yet been announced, although it was released on Blu-ray in the UK in April 2012.
Initial reviews from the premiere at Fantasia festival were polarised. The Fangoria review was mildly positive with misgivings: "even as a black comedy, Wicker Tree can’t match the impact of its predecessor. Still, for those fans of Wicker Man who can open their minds to viewing, as Monty Python used to put it, something completely different, the new movie can be appreciated as an entertaining variation on its themes." The Starburst magazine review was negative, remarking that "Sometimes cult films really should be left alone", and, "Prepare to have your hopes dashed however as The Wicker Tree is awful."
The film had a limited U.S. theatrical release in January 2012. In April of that year, Hardy discussed the film's mixed critical reception. "The New York Times’s reviewer said it wasn't as gritty as the original Wicker Man, but it's a thousand times better than the remake. I was quite happy with that." When asked whether he preferred The Wicker Tree to the original version of The Wicker Man, Hardy replied, "No, I really don't."
Anchor Bay Entertainment released The Wicker Tree on Region 1 and Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray in April 2012.
Hardy had proposed a third film in the Wicker Man film series, but he died on 1 July 2016.