The Wicker Man

Sex, human sacrifice, a notorious bum double and gleeful ritual transvestitism all wrapped in four decades of conspiracy theories: movies don’t come more cult than The Wicker Man.

It was dismissed as an ‘interesting failure’ (The Telegraph) on its 1973 release and buried (literally, some say) by the studios – myth has it the original cans of celluloid were mistakenly (or not, if you believe its star, Christopher Lee) used as landfill somewhere under the M3 motorway – before its resurrection today as ‘The best British horror film ever made’ (Empire magazine).

‘Of course, it wasn’t a horror film at all, really, it was a black comedy,’ insists its director, Robin Hardy, now aged 83. ‘One of the things Tony Shaffer, the writer, and I did was to break the rules of so-called horror films.’

Though released in the same year as The Exorcist, The Wicker Man might as well have been from another planet. In The Wicker Man, sex doesn’t equal death – quite the opposite – and, though it’s based around religious conflict, good doesn’t conquer evil, since it’s never clear which is which.

‘We went behind all those clichés of the horror story – all that Roman Catholic medieval propaganda,’ says Hardy. This is why, 40 years on, The Wicker Man still remains so radical and refreshingly peculiar.

The story is an elaborate game played on Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), an earnest virgin ‘Christian copper’ who catches a plane to remote Scottish island Summerisle to investigate a missing girl.

He finds a thriving pagan community, led by a lusty, wild-haired Lord Summerisle (The Lord Of The Rings’ Christopher Lee in his favourite role), that enjoys orgies in graveyards, teaches reincarnation and phallic symbolism in school, dances naked over fires and, like the Christians, believes in sacrifice – just of a very different, scary nature…

On completion, the studio’s managing director, Michael Deeley, called it ‘one of the ten worst films I have ever seen’, hacked 20 minutes out and released it as a B-movie on a double bill with Don’t Look Now.

Ever since, there’s never been such a thing as a ‘finished’ cut as the original print was lost/buried/hidden/cursed. But now, Hardy has given his blessing to a new-release, 94-minute ‘final cut’ derived from an old print of the 1979 US theatrical version.
Wicker Man director Robin Hardy says he broke the rules of horror (Picture: Alamy)Wicker Man director Robin Hardy says he broke the rules of horror (Picture: Alamy)

Most significant for Hardy is the reinsertion of a scene where Britt Ekland, as the landlord’s fruity daughter, indoctrinates a young boy into the world of sexual intercourse while Lord Summerisle gazes fondly at some copulating snails. ‘I love those snails,’ Hardy yearningly recalls. ‘They played their part very well, I thought.’

Hardy holds less fondness towards the infamously dire 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage, whose ‘worst scene’ reel (‘Nooo, not the bees!’) has had millions of hits on YouTube. ‘They just missed the point,’ shrugs Hardy, who recently directed his own sequel, The Wicker Tree, and is now working on a threequel.

‘This third film will really stick it to the gods,’ he says. ‘It’s about an American company, not unlike the Mouse House [Disney] or Universal, who decide to do a historic theme park in the Shetlands based on Norse sagas.’

Hardy is keen to develop a similar park himself, which is not a bad idea as, 40 years on, the original movie has never been more popular. There’s already an annual Wickerman Festival in Scotland, which started in 2001 – last year’s acts
included Scissor Sisters.

So what’s the eternal appeal? Partly, the film taps into a lost British paganism we half remember when we deck the halls with holly and sing rhymes such as Oranges And Lemons – a strain enhanced by Paul Giovanni’s iconic and eerie folk-based score. But mainly we love it because, despite the odd echo in the work of fellow ‘folk horror’ director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field In England), The Wicker Man remains a one-off.

‘The film exists in its own time and place – which is outside of time – so it doesn’t date too easily,’ says Hardy. ‘It didn’t fit into any genre at that particular moment and it never really has. It’s become its own genre.’

The Wicker Man is in cinemas now.