Christopher Lee considered it his best-ever film. Cinefantastisque magazine called it the “Citizen Kane of horror films.” Empire magazine said it was “Britain’s best horror film.” And both Time Out and the British Film Institute included it in their lists of the best British films of all time. (If you’ve never seen it, we highly recommend you watch it this Halloween.)
Last July, Robin Hardy, the writer and director of one of the greatest horror movies ever made, The Wicker Man, sadly died at the age of 86.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet and interview the charming Hardy and speak to him about the ongoing cult of The Wicker Man, a film that still has the power to shock all these years on (and is still being referenced in modern culture today — check out Radiohead’s recent video for “Burn The Witch” for proof).
“It’s very intriguing for me that its success continues to grow,” Hardy told me at the time. “I think it’s partly because the film is very timeless.” Here, in Hardy’s own words, is his insight into the cult of this iconic horror film.
REBEAT: I heard that the idea for The Wicker Man came when [writer] Anthony Shaffer read a book on the old pagan religion. How did it develop from there?
ROBIN HARDY: We had been interested in the Hammer horror films, and we thought that it would be interesting to go back into the origins of the things seen in these films. The generic horror films in Britain were made up of a kind of series of clichés really — clichés that people enjoyed: the stakes through the heart, the garlic and the cross, and all those things familiar to those films.
We wanted to go back to the old religion on which all those things were ultimately based, which was far more interesting than that sort of hokiness. We looked for a story we gave us a chance to show all the various things which still exist in our lives that are really pagan and not Christian.
One of the most striking and unusual elements in the film is the eerie use of folk music. How did that come about?
There were so many songs handed down to us as part of folklore; we think that music was very important to our pagan forbearers as it was to our Christian forbearers. Singing was a very big part of church services — one has to remember that even average people went to church virtually every day of the week. Church music was very important and folk music was very important. We thought it helped the story. It is, in a sense, a musical — it has 13 musical numbers and the lyrics are like a continuing dialogue.
Christopher Lee is so iconic in this film, I can’t imagine anyone else in that role.
He was really in at the inception. I think he was looking for vehicles for his work where he could play a lead role but substantially different from what everyone was typecasting him as. The fact that it was the kind of horror film where he played a completely different kind of person was very attractive to him, so it was not difficult to persuade him to do it.
But Edward Woodward (best known as the star of the ’80s TV show The Equalizer) wasn’t your first choice for the role of the moralistic police sergeant Neil Howie?
He wasn’t the very first person because I had been working in America on and off all the time and hadn’t seen his work on British television. He had done a series called Callan which he played a very chip-on-his-shoulder cop, very anti-establishment and that sort of thing, which was a tremendous success and in the mood of the time.
But he hadn’t done many films, in fact, I don’t know if he had done any other feature films at that time, maybe he had played smaller parts in them but never a lead. I had offered the part originally to David Hemmings but he was doing another film and he was very much at the peak of his career at that time.
I think he would have been perfectly good but I don’t think he would have been as good as Edward. But now I’ve seen what Edward has done it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could do it better. Rather like Christopher, he plays a completely different kind of role than the one he played on television.
I know the casting of Swedish blonde bombshell Britt Ekland has come in for some criticism over the years. Why did you decide to cast her?
It wasn’t a very big part and we had to have someone who currently had quite a lot of visibility. The producers proposed her and I thought she was just fine. We had a bit of a problem with the accent but we knew that we were going to have that, because she didn’t pretend to be anything but Swedish. I thought she did very well, the more I’ve seen the film the better I think she did. I’m a fan of her really as far as that film is concerned.
Over the years she’s said she was unhappy with the film.
She made a bit of a fuss about her voice and the dubbing. She’s wrong in thinking that we dubbed her voice — that is her voice — but, of course, you don’t know what your own voice sounds like and she worked hard on the accent and she did. What we couldn’t avoid doing was dub her singing, but she never pretended that she could sing; that was never an issue, Ally Ross did that.
There were rumors that Rod Stewart (Britt Ekland’s boyfriend at the time) tried to buy the negative of the film, because he wasn’t happy with her nude scene. Is that true?
I don’t believe that. I absolutely don’t believe that. Why on earth would he? If Rod Stewart had been living in the 1860s he might have worried about it but it was a perfectly normal piece of nudity that she appears in. Thousands of serious actresses have done scenes of erotic nature, and it’s extremely unlikely that Rod Stewart would have been shocked.
Is it true the rest of the cast in the film were actually locals?
Only a couple [of the extras] were actors, the rest were local sailors and fishermen. They were wonderful and they entered into the spirit of things. They belong to this sect called the We Threes, which is a religious sect that is very strong up in that part of Scotland, and we had every kind of help from them for four days a week. The other three days, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, they would hardly speak to us because they were the Sabbath and they were very serious about it, and still are in fact.
Did you ever have any feedback from real pagan societies from which the film takes its inspiration?
Absolutely. When we opened the film in San Francisco, where we had an enormously successful opening, it was a sort of gala and there were about 1600 people unable to get into the cinema because the reviews in the newspapers, and on the radio, had been great about the films.
I had to make a speech and I was heckled by a delegation of pagans who were swathed in chains and things. They were protesting that we were giving paganism a bad name. There have been those reactions over the years but I think a lot of people who have those sort of inclinations like the film because it explores something that they’re interested in.
I know three 60-foot models of the actual Wicker Man were constructed and were set on fire for the end scene. Where did the inspiration for it come from?
It was an awesome thing based on an 18th Century drawing of what they imagined the Wicker Man had been like. It had been mentioned in all sorts of Roman literature. Germanicus, who was the emperor Claudius’s brother, was defeated by the Celtic tribes in what is now Germany and they were horrified to see that their prisoners had been put into one of these things. And then there are reports of them being in Britain too amongst the Celts.
We know from their descriptions what they like although there were no drawings from that time. They sometimes contained a dozen people, so where we put animals, they would have put lots of people, not just in the heart of the thing where we put Edward.
What’s great about that scene is that it’s terrifying but you never really see anything.
We didn’t want to do the Hammer blood thing, and there’s no real violence. We wanted to prove that you could do a really frightening film without all that hokey stuff.
In 1973, the new owners of British Lion, Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley, proclaimed it to be one of the 10 worst films they had ever seen. Why do you think they hated it so much given all the acclaim it’s received since?
I don’t know; it was a complicated situation. I think it was almost entirely for financial reasons. Deeley and Spikings had taken over the company and they wanted to make a big capital gain on their shares by selling the company at a considerable profit to EMI. To do that they had to persuade the shareholders that Peter Snell had messed up by having The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man was very much ahead of its time, I think it is fair to say that. No film like that had ever been made and the sales people were simply horrified, you know, “We don’t know what to do with it and it hasn’t got very big stars in it, what is it? We don’t know how to sell it.” They sold it to a tax shelter group for $300,000 up front and they knew damn well that the film would probably never be distributed because all these people wanted was a 10-to-one write-off on their taxes.
My lawyer was able to pursue the matter and we got them to release the film for someone to distribute. The film meanwhile had been shown at a film festival in America and had a hugely good reception and there were some young folks from New Orleans who wanted to take on the chore of distributing it. And they raised the money to do that, it was their first project and they did an amazing job.
They took the film all over the country and made a huge success of it. So there was nothing EMI could do at this point. They got their $300,000, and they were embarrassed of the film. And the film has continued to embarrass those two guys for the rest of their lives.
And then there was the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage…
I’m completely indifferent, frankly. I think it’s a very foolish film to decide to remake. I mean, I’ve seen good remakes, like The Thomas Crown Affair, but this film seems to be an absolutely absurd one to try and remake, really.
Does it surprise you that the original film has continued to gain fans over the years?
What I do find quite interesting is that Christopher and I were in Italy at a film festival and an enormous number of people, who were really interested in the film and were fans, were not even born when the film was made. It still attracts a very young audience and goes on doing so. I must say I am very pleased about that naturally because it seems to go on recreating an audience every generation.
What causes that? I don’t know. I think it’s partly because the film is very timeless. When it was shot, it was obviously shot in the 20th Century; there is an airplane but there are no cars, no gadgets, no televisions, none of those things. It could be any time any place really… well, apart from the haircuts!