❉ We look back at Robin Hardy’s folk horror masterpiece – and its legacy.
Sergeant Howie: And what of the TRUE God? Whose glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?
Lord Summerisle: He’s dead. Can’t complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.
A year ago today, Robin Hardy passed away, at the age of 86. Best known as director and co-creator of cult favourite 1973 pagan horror The Wicker Man, Hardy – born in Surrey in October 1929 – began his film career in the ‘60s, directing episodes of Esso World Theatre in Canada and USA. One of these, 1965’s India, A Haunting Passage, a montage of scenes of twentieth century India, featured performances by Ravi Shankar.
On his return to London, Hardy went into partnership with playwright, screenwriter and former lawyer Anthony Shaffer, as television production company Hardy, Shaffer & Associates. Prior to The Wicker Man, Shaffer’s previous critical successes had been the 1970 play Sleuth, which he adapted for the 1972 film starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, a tense two-hander about class, privilege, sexual jealousy, one-upmanship, theatrical roleplay and deception, and Alfred Hitchcock’s London-based thriller Frenzy (1972).
Hardy’s masterpiece and directorial debut, The Wicker Man (British Lion Films, 1973) was created in collaboration with Shaffer and independent filmmaker Peter Snell. The trio initially drew inspiration from David Pinner’s 1967 cult thriller novel Ritual, before hammering out a loose concept based on a clash of ideals between Christianity and paganism, paying close attention to Sir George Frazer’s twelve-volume The Golden Bough, which details how the pagan myths and folklore of merrie olde Albion have fed into the Enlightment.
Quoted in Inside The Wicker Man: How Not To Make A Cult Classic by Allan Brown, Hardy explained:
“Everything you see in the film is absolutely authentic. The whole series of ceremonies and details that we show have happened at different times and places in Britain and western Europe. What we did was to bring them all together in one particular time and place. The wicker man itself is quite real. The Druids used the structure to burn their sacrificial victims. What we hoped would fascinate people is not that they would think these things are still going on in Europe, but that they would recognise an awful lot of these things as sort of little echoes from either out of childhood stories and nursery rhymes or things they do at various times of the year. There are so many Christian holidays that are celebrated where there was previously a pagan feast. Easter is one of them, originally it was a hare feast. At Christmas, you set up a Christmas tree because that was what the goddess Hera worshipped. Mistletoe is purely Druidic – it relates to the Golden Bough. My God, when you decorate your home for Christmas you are using nearly every pagan symbol there is!”
After a weekend of pitching and tossing ideas, Hardy and Shaffer conceived the central plot of The Wicker Man – in which a devout, pious and virginal Christian police sargeant becomes embroiled in an investigation about the mysterious death of a young girl on the island of Summerisle, a pagan community overseen by the ostensibly benevolent Lord Summerisle.
Soon, a cast was in place – Edward Woodward, star of hard-boiled TV crime drama Callan, as the policeman, and Christopher Lee, having been involved in the project from the outset, as Lord Summerisle; whilst the supporting cast of colourful local eccentrics was brought to life by pulchritudinous Hammer glamour girl Ingrid Pitt as the island’s records keeper, Sean Connery’s wife Diane Cliento as schoolmistress Miss Rose, starlet Britt Eckland (fresh from Get Carter) as Willow, David Bowie’s former muse, the mime artist Lindsay Kemp, as the village landlord, and the redoubtable Aubrey Morris (A Clockwork Orange) in a typically puckish turn as a local eccentric.
Filming took place over seven weeks in Autumn 1972, mostly in and around Newton Stewart, Scotland. Hardy: “In all the towns and villages where we shot, while all the buildings you see are real, frequently, if you turned the camera around, down the road might be some dreadfully modern little house which would spoil the whole effort. Matching up locations, tacking together a homogeneous town out of disparate buildings and even pieces of buildings, all sympathetic architecturally, is tricky but something I find quite fun to do.”
The Wicker Man ran into problems with its production company, British Lion Films, who were going through hard times and soon taken over by Thorn-EMI Films, who actively despised the film, despite the enthusiastic support of its star Christopher Lee, who regarded it as his finest work. British Lion’s new bosses, Barry Spikins and Michael Deeley, had little interest in the film and Deeley initially refused to release it, seeing no market value in the film.
Deeley, following the advice of AIP’s Roger Corman, cut down the film by 13 minutes, to a running time of 87 minutes, which Deeley realised would allow the film to play as a supporting, secondary feature to a more prestigious main attraction as part of a double bill.
In this form, the film wasn’t so much released as let out on parole, as a supporting feature for Nicolas Roeg’s disturbing meditation on death, grief, the paranormal and predestination, Don’t Look Now, and was more or less forgotten.
From these lowly beginnings, the film rose over the past four decades to become one of the major cult movies, gaining a groundswell of support from cultural historians, cineastes, and archivists – the mystery of what happened to the excised footage (for a long time, rumoured to have been used as landfill for the M4 motorway) led to much speculation and detective work – and the film became a cause celebre, finding favour with movie fans and filmmakers alike. Essentially, it became one of the ‘ur texts’ of cult cinema, following the same ‘cult movie’ trajectory as the likes of Peeping Tom and The Devils: internecine censorship battles, abandonment by the studio, and subsequent critical redemption. It would be thirty years before Hardy’s director’s cut of The Wicker Man became available.
A novelisation of the film first appeared in 1978, reinstating much of the cut material and incorporating more backstory. It was reprinted in 2000, accompanied by Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man, an honest look at the film’s genesis, production and afterlife.
After The Wicker Man, Hardy directed two more films. There was serial killer drama The Fantasist (1986). In 1989 he wrote and co-produced Forbidden Son, which, like The Wicker Man, dealt with a secretive cult. In July 2012, The Wicker Tree – a thematic sequel written and directed by Hardy – premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival to what could be politely termed mixed reviews, with genre magazine Starburst declaring it “awful”, and concluding “Sometimes cult films really should be left alone.”
Nevertheless, the cult appeal of The Wicker Man refuses to die – its status not even diminished by the notoriously awful Nicolas Cage remake – and when the Hammer Studios brand was revived in 2010, its first theatrical release was Wake Wood (2010) starring Aidan Gillen and Timothy Spall, a film that – although not without merit – could be described as Wicker Man ‘fanfiction’. But this is just one aspect of how Hardy’s greatest creation continues to enthral…
In 2010, the Guardian named The Wicker Man the fourth-best horror film of all time. In recent years The Wicker Man joined Tigon’s Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970) to form the ‘holy trinity’ of a subgenre whose appeal in pop culture circles shows no sign of diminishing: ‘folk horror’.
The term ‘folk horror’ itself appears to have been first coined by Blood on Satan’s Claw’s Piers Haggard, in Mark Gatiss’ 2011 documentary series A History of Horror, just a few months after the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound’s August 2010 issue devoted its cover to “The Films of Old, Weird Britain”.
It’s a diverse genre, but many of its key motifs are all encoded in The Wicker Man: Hermetically sealed (usually rural) communities; imagery of agriculture, fertility and the soil; modern man standing on the precipice of deeper, hidden, horrors and the friction that arises; a haunting of the present by the past; and the arrival of an innocent outsider drawn into this hinterland.
Folk horror encompasses everything from Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1969) and HTV’s Children of the Stones (1977), to the grotesque humour of The League Of Gentlemen and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. Its close relative, hauntology, infects the output of cult website Scarfolk, Ghost Box Records, and Look Around You, while the bucolic folk horror aesthetic minted by The Wicker Man has been recently channelled by sources as disparate as Channel 4 ‘sadcom’ Flowers, Robert Eggers’ New England horror The Witch, Radiohead’s Burn The Witch promo, and BBC One’s supernatural drama The Living And the Dead.
Pioneers often die with arrows in their back, and this was certainly the case with Robin Hardy and The Wicker Man, but four decades on, what started as a labour of love, before being duly assigned to the scrapheap by an indifferent movie industry, continues to be, even in the technological age, a touchstone of British pop culture, and a much-quoted icon of maverick filmmaking.
❉ An amended version of this post previously appeared on The Malcontent in July 2016.
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❉ Sources: Robin Hardy quotes excerpted from Inside The Wicker Man: How Not To Make A Cult Classic by Allan Brown (Polygon, 2010).