Director of the eerily unsettling horror film The Wicker Man
Monday 4 July 2016 1
The director Robin Hardy, who has died aged 86, made only one film of note. But as this was The Wicker Man (1973), which terrified audiences without showing so much as a drop of blood being spilt, his place in British cinema history was always going to be assured. It tells the story of a puritanical Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) who visits an island off the coast of Scotland after reports that a young girl has gone missing. He is shocked to find his investigation impeded by the community, which is steeped in rituals and paganism. The chilling purpose of their secrecy is finally revealed in one of the great twist endings of all time.
Even before that pay-off, Hardy had sustained expertly an atmosphere of unsettling eeriness, in which the root of the unease could never quite be pinpointed. Count Dracula himself, the actor Christopher Lee, played the island’s leader, Lord Summerisle, but the horror on offer was of a more insidious variety than the sort peddled by the Hammer studio.
The Wicker Man arose out of meetings between Lee, the writer Anthony Shafferand the producer Peter Snell, during which they shared ideas, suggestions and research for a film inspired by David Pinner’s novel Ritual. Hardy then joined the project. “Tony and I were great horror film buffs and used to see lots of the original Hammers,” he said. “We wondered why it was that they always centred on pentacles, garlic, stakes in hearts and all those other things to do with black magic. We thought it would be fun to go back to the religion on which all this hokey witchcraft stuff was based – the old religion – and recreate a contemporary society that was pre-Christian.”
The beleaguered studio British Lion made The Wicker Man cheaply as a way for its new owner, the businessman John Bentley, to prove to the unions that the company was still a going concern. But the studio was sold to EMI, which hated the film and pruned it from 99 to 87 minutes before releasing it on the bottom half of a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. With no press screenings arranged for The Wicker Man, Lee cold-called critics to persuade them to view it. He also accompanied it to the International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction Films in Paris, where it won the grand prix in 1974.
The reviews, when they emerged, were largely grudging. “The story turns into a barbarous joke, too horrible for pleasure,” wrote Dilys Powell in the Sunday Times, “but one must admire the playing and the distinction with which Hardy has directed Shaffer’s screenplay.” Margaret Hinxman in the Sunday Telegraph commended the film on its “genuine sense of what is horrific” but decided that it lacked “the satisfactory inter-relation of the ordinary and the extraordinary that marks the best fantasy fiction”.
Rumours that Rod Stewart tried to buy the picture in order to destroy nude scenes featuring his then partner Britt Ekland, or that the original negative of Hardy’s cut was buried in landfill beneath the M4, only contributed to the popular conception of The Wicker Man as a film maudit. It was in every sense a movie that refused to die.
Various versions surfaced over the years, among them a 102-minute edit on video in the 1980s and a 40th anniversary 93-minute version approved by Hardy as the “final cut” in 2013. Shaffer wrote a follow-up, The Loathsome Lambton Worm, which was never filmed, while Hardy directed The Wicker Tree (2011), a “spiritual sequel” adapted from his own novel Cowboys for Christ.
A 2006 US remake of The Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicolas Cage, was roundly mocked. In 2012, the National Theatre of Scotland produced a musical version, An Appointment with the Wicker Man, about an amateur dramatics society trying to mount a play of the film. But the influence of Hardy’s original endures. British directors including Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List) have paid explicit homage to the movie in their work, while the band Radiohead recently produced a video based on it to accompany their single Burn the Witch.
It would be fair to say that The Wicker Man eclipsed everything else its director did. Born in Wimbledon, south London, Robin was the son of Gordon, a member of the Indian civil service, and his wife, Veronica (nee Rimington). After attending Bradfield college, near Reading, Robin studied art in Paris.
He began directing for the National Film Board of Canada and for the Esso World Theater strand on the PBS channel in the US. Then he moved to London and with Shaffer co-founded the advertising agency Hardy Shaffer Ferguson Avery. After making The Wicker Man, he returned to America, where he made commercials and became involved in the historical theme park business.
He wrote novels including The Education of Don Juan (1981), directed the thriller The Fantasist (1986) and co-wrote Forbidden Sun (1989), about sexual repression at a girls’ school in Crete. He also wrote Winnie, a musical about Winston Churchill that was staged in London in 1988. At the time of his death, he wastrying to raise funds for a third Wicker Man instalment, The Wrath of the Gods.
He is survived by his fifth wife, Victoria Webster, and his eight children, Jeremy, St Clair, Zoë, Alexander, Dominic, Justin, Arabella and Tom.
• Robin St Clair Rimington Hardy, film-maker and novelist, born 2 October 1929; died 1 July 2016
There can be few, if any, film fans in the world who haven't watched, at least once, a low-budget offering from Britain which popped up as a B-movie in 1973 – The Wicker Man. From these lowly beginnings, the film has steadily grown in reputation in the intervening years to become one of the principal cult movies of the last 40 years. Most aficionados are also aware that the film circulates in a number of different versions, but there is much confusion and misinformation about the exact differences between the various cuts. But first, let's find out why more than one version exists in the first place...
The Wicker Man began life in 1971 when three vague acquaintances: actor Christopher Lee, independent film producer Peter Snell, and writer Anthony "Sleuth" Shaffer, got together and started to discuss the possibility of working on a movie project of mutual interest. Shaffer discovered a 1967 novel called Ritual by David Pinner, and each of the three members of the group stumped up £5000 to acquire the film rights to the book. Shaffer set to work adapting the book but soon came across problems with its structure but, moreover, realised that the book simply wasn't exciting enough to be turned into a worthwhile production. (It might be suggested that somebody should have recognised these problems before the money was spent, but still...)
An old associate of Shaffer, small-time director Robin Hardy, who was convalescing after a heart attack, appeared on the scene and a quiet weekend was spent brainstorming some fresh ideas at Hardy's house near Maidenhead. During that weekend a framework was developed that ended up being very close to the finished movie.
The pagan details were to be entirely authentic; Shaffer's main research source being Sir James George Frazer's 12-volume The Golden Bough which details how early myths, rites and pagan beliefs have fed into modern twentieth-century life. Hardy: "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!"