This year there will be no Wickerman Festival. Without Robin Hardy, who directed cult classic The Wicker Man towards the end of 1972, there would never have been a festival in the first place.
The Wicker Man was not a success on release but this magical and intriguing film has grown in stature ever since to the point where, in addition to the festival named in its honour, there’s been a novelization by Hardy and Anthony Shaffer (who wrote the screenplay), a Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage (which I haven’t seen and have no real intention of ever seeing), a number of books on the making of the movie, fanzines, conferences and conventions, film location tours, a stage version and a number of documentaries. Even the recent animated video of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch paid homage to the film that has been described as ‘the Citizen Kane of horror movies’.
The genre of horror experienced a golden age in Britain in the 1970s. Obviously there was Hammer, while studios catering for a similar audience such as Amicus and Tigon thrived too; a post-Hammer ‘new wave of horror’ emerged in the middle of the decade with directors like Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker and there was also the big budget international hit, The Omen. The highpoint of horror in that decade though was The Wicker Man, a film that found no favour with distributors until it was brutally cut in length and relegated to a slot as the support film in a double feature with Don’t Look Now, back when your local picture house provided paying punters with a bit of value.
At times, when I began watching The Wicker Man myself for the first time as part of the BBC’s Moviedrome strand during the ’80s, I didn’t really know whether I liked it or not. Probably because it was utterly unique. I seem to remember it initially striking me as a macabre comedy with bizarre musical interludes such as the bawdy bar song, The Landlord’s Daughter, in praise of Willow (Britt Ekland) and May Pole, which resembled a surreal take on children’s TV of the period – Magpie meets The Incredible String Band.
By the time of Willow’s Song, though, I knew one thing: I wasn’t going to be switching it off until the final credits had rolled – and not just because of a naked Britt Ekland (well a naked Britt and her body double I should say) although I’ll happily admit that I would’ve been in Willow’s bedroom myself quicker than you could say Usain Bolt after that peculiar invitation.
In the unlikely case of you not knowing anything about the plot, Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, is a pious and pompous Christian with a particularly closed mind who is sent to the pagan community of Summerisle to investigate the alleged disappearance of a twelve year old schoolgirl called Rowan Morrison.
One of the unusual though great things about the film is that it is possible to dislike the priggish hero, a man so repressed he cannot even utter the word sex and who’s offended at every turn by the behaviour of the Bacchanalian islanders. Then there’s that unconventional ending, one of the most memorable scenes of any British film, horror or otherwise, which Robin Hardy shot magnificently.
Hardy really worked wonders on The Wicker Man, to the extent of making Dumfries and Galloway in November resemble May Day and the days leading up to it – at times there was snow on the hills and, while outside, extras had to chew ice cubes so their breath wouldn’t be shown on camera while actors had directional heaters aimed at their waists while they delivered their lines. It’s remarkable that Hardy coaxed so many fine performances from the stars of the film.
‘Hardy was a natural at directing actors,’ Edward Woodward recalled in Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man. ‘He wasn’t easy to work with but I mean that as a compliment. He didn’t let you get away with something just because you’d flash him a charming look, he made you do things differently.’
By coincidence, as someone who is attempting to actively avoid watching any of Euro 2016, I looked out my four disc Final Cut DVD yesterday and watched a couple of the documentaries spread across its four discs, intending to watch the so-called Director’s Cut while Germany faced Italy last night.
Before I got to chance to do so, it sadly emerged that Robin Hardy had died the day before.
In addition to his crucial role in The Wicker Man, Hardy also directed a number of other films including the similarly themed The Wicker Tree (2011), which was an adaptation of his novel Cowboys for Christ.
Robin Hardy had planned to make a third Wicker Man film as a tribute to his great friend Christopher Lee, who died himself last year. It really is a pity that Hardy didn’t get the chance to complete his trilogy.
Robin Hardy. 2 October 1929 – 1 July 2016.