On the first of July, film director and writer Robin Hardy passed away at the age of 86, leaving many fans of horror cinema, if not cinema in general, deeply saddened by his loss. Hardy has received a number of posthumous tributes from a number of people in the film industry, including most notably by film director Edgar Wright, actor Graham McTavish (one of the dwarves in The Hobbit films), among others.

What’s most interesting about Robin Hardy’s legacy is that it all stems from a single film of his, his first, most famous and remarkable film. He was not a prolific director, unlike others who manage to release a new film every two years, or even schedule to work on several productions that concurrently release year after year, Robin Hardy wasn’t one of them.

His first film The Wicker Man was truly influential and original for its time, indeed there still isn’t anything quite like it nowadays. Way back in 1973, The Wicker Man only gained cult success (perhaps suitably) barely making back box-office returns against its £500,000 budget. There would be large gaps of time between his next two films, the second The Fantasist being released in 1986, his third and final film was released as recently as 2011 with a sequel to The Wicker Man called The Wicker Tree.

While I can’t speak for either of his latter films, The Wicker Man eventually received the acclaim it greatly deserves, often cited as one of the greatest horror films ever made, and one of the best British films ever. Even the late and brilliant cast member of the film Christopher Lee has said it is his favourite of all the films he has starred in throughout his 200+ cinematic career. So here we are, paying tribute to the man by exploring the brilliance of The Wicker Man.

At the time The Wicker Man was released it was after an era of monster movies from the prior decades, including a resurgence in classic literary horror, as re-envisioned by Hammer Pictures (which included Christopher Lee’s endless casting as either Dracula or The Mummy). While horror movies were focusing more on putting lots of nudity and viscera on the screen to sell tickets, Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer looked to old pagan religions, as well as the novel Ritual as inspiration for a new type of horror film.

Police officer Sergeant Howie is sent to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl; Rowan Morrison. Once he sets foot on the island he discovers that the islanders engage in beliefs and practices that do not abide by human law or Christian values. At night couples openly engage in sex out on the grass fields, young virgin boys are “offered” to women like they were prized delicacies. Children are also taught the meanings of phallic symbolism, to dance and jump over fires naked in order to imbue pregnant women with the essence of the fire god. Their beliefs belong to the old pagan gods, the gods of the sun, of the wind, of the tree, and amidst this seeming chaos of unchristian blasphemy Howie is convinced the whole island has conspired to kill Rowan Morrison as a sacrifice for the annual harvest.

Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward

The film was ahead of its time, but it didn’t garner the kind of attention or praise it gets now, The Wicker Man was attempting a type of horror that was unlike the B-movie schlock of the past. There were no monsters, there wasn’t any blood really, any nudity in the film wasn’t just there to simply titillate the audience it was also advancing the narrative.

What the film did so well was take the idyllic countryside setting of a coastal English town and subvert all the beliefs and values of modern society. Everything in the film appears normal and joyful until you realize what people are saying and doing, mothers placing toads in children’s mouths to cure their sore throats, sexuality being taught and actively encouraged by the senior members of the community onto the young. The intimacy and pleasure of sex is removed when these people are told to have sex as ritualistic rite that serves the gods.

That’s what is so horrifying about The Wicker Man, it’s not a cheap haunted house jump scare fest, and it’s not a flashy, high budget, star-laden tent pole film that had to appeal to the interests of all audiences. The Wicker Man was only concerned with building a sickly atmosphere of corrupted societal values being portrayed as good and completely ordinary. As Lord Summerisle and his community frolic in their moral depravity, we look through Howe’s eyes in shock by what people can be made to think is perfectly acceptable.

Christopher Lee

Finally there’s that ending, as Rowan turns out not to be dead, and tricks Howe into being captured and then burned alive in the huge Wicker Man structure, seeing the head of the Wicker Man topple as the sun sets in the distance is brilliant, iconic, and will never be forgotten.

This film came out years before Stanley Kubrick set the bar for horror cinema with his film The Shining, while that film was more psychological in its approach to horror. Yet I see similarities between them, how they share the same atmosphere and deliberate, slow build up of the plot, as well as sustaining a compelling narrative with wonderful writing and spectacular special effect set pieces. They were similar in a lot of ways and yet so different in their style of horror filmmaking, only The Wicker Man pulled off a lot of the same tricks The Shining employed seven years beforehand. It was only because of The Wicker Man‘s failure to reach audiences at the time of its release that it was overlooked, that may be a shame, particularly for Robin Hardy who only got to make two more films in his career perhaps due to the fact his films were not successful in the box-office. But if you left the world knowing you had given back a film like The Wicker Man, a film entirely unique, disturbing, and so beloved by filmmakers and film fans everywhere, isn’t that a great legacy to leave behind?

Robin Hardy