It was late 1973. Michael Deeley, distinguished English producer of The Italian Job (and later, The Deer Hunter and Blade Runner), had just taken over the board of British Lion. Amongst the films that Deeley had to now shepherd into release was a low budget horror film called The Wicker Man. Written by playwright Anthony Shaffer, author of the stage blockbuster Sleuth, and directed by a former adman Robin Hardy, starred Edward Woodward (best known in the early '70s as a TV actor), and Hammer horror regulars Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. It also featured Diane Cilento and a sometimes naked Britt Eckland, who then was famous for being Rod Stewart's girlfriend.
In cold print, the plot seemed like no one's idea of a horror movie; Woodward plays an uptight cop, Howie, who travels to a remote Scottish island called Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Once there he encounters a friendly population who like to enjoy bawdy sing-a-longs, fornicating under the naked moon and the odd bit of 'earth' worship. It turns out that Christianity has not quite penetrated the shores of Summerisle; their culture is based on the 'old religion', one of Pagan rites, including human sacrifice, deriving from the Druids. Lee, who had spent a lot of his career wearing fangs and a cape, got to play the Lord of the Manor; he was impressed by the film's ingenious plotting and its peculiar and creepy atmosphere. But Deeley differed; he told the actor it was one of the ten “worst movies ever made.”
And so, like many movie originals, The Wicker Man became a hard-to-see oddity for decades; misunderstood by many critics and disowned by its producers, it eventually accrued cult status.
Now, according to journalist and author Allan Brown, The Wicker Man has finally passed deep into the pop culture zeitgeist. “In the UK, the title has entered the language as a kind of short hand for rural oddity,” he told SBS from his home in Scotland. “As in, 'it's all getting a bit Wicker Man,' and that's because there is a really profound distinction between urban and rural cultures.”
Brown's book about the film's making, Inside the Wicker Man, has been re-released in an updated and revised edition, it's a detailed and often hilarious tale of bad luck, business misadventures, and creative in-fighting. “Everything about the film's production and distribution,” he writes, “was a textbook example of How Things Should Never Be Done.” Using interviews with most of the key players in The Wicker Man's history, the book is a deliciously wry yarn full of eye scalding anecdotes and bizarre vignettes. (Tellingly, Deeley did not contribute to the book; Brown says he simply was not "findable.")
In print, Brown's style is smart but never earnest; in interview, he strikes one as a man who's fast on his feet with a quip every minute. He accounts for the book's candid, not quite confessional, tone by explaining that when he started writing the book (in the '90s), the film was still obscure and for many of the cast and crew The Wicker Man had been a career highlight, never to be bested. And besides, he says, it was a chance for some of them to air some long held animosities; director Hardy especially, comes in for a bollocking from certain cast and crew. “Here were a lot of people with stones in their shoes and they were grateful to get their shoes off!”
Central to Brown's narrative is a classic tale of friends who become enemies. In the '60s, Hardy and Shaffer were creative and business partners. The pair fell out over one of the oldest reasons in show business – ego. Still, Brown carefully negotiates the bitchiness; he turns out to be a sympathetic biographer, but one unmoved by charm, or bombast, so by the book's end it is very clear who can take credit for The Wicker Man's weird genius. “Shaffer had a lot of success behind him; he'd written Frenzy for Hitchcock and later would do a string of Agatha Christie film adaptations… but Hardy sort of fell upwards in making The Wicker Man.” Today, Brown says Hardy spends his life “traipsing around the globe introducing The Wicker Man at cult and horror film festivals.”
As to the growing cult around the film, which has spawned a string of making-of docos, retrospective articles and frequent screenings, Brown says that The Wicker Man was prescient in the way it anticipated a deeply felt debate in white Western culture over religion and culture.
“The Wicker Man is about the barrier between civility and barbarity,” he says. “In the 1970s, movies about religion – and I don't mean Biblical spectacles, but movies that [confronted] faith – were rare. In a post 9/11 world, particularly in Britain, the issue of what people are prepared to do to further their faith runs deep and The Wicker Man dramatises these issues in this story about a 'boutique' faith.” He says that Shaffer was not a religious man but a deeply spiritual one and the movie became for him a meditation on religious tolerance; the true source, Brown says, of its deeply disturbing mood. “You see Howie cannot accept [the Pagan view], their view of reality and its validity and [since Howie is a Christian], they cannot accept his.”
It wasn't only the film's lack of convention and its rather lofty concerns that help plunge The Wicker Man into obscurity. It was, Brown argues, a case of a Brit cinema scene that was terminally unhip. “By the time The Wicker Man was made, Easy Rider had made an impact in Hollywood,” he explains. “I think you have to remember just how square Britain was in the early '70s; it was controlled by men in bowler hats who were bankers, while in the US, studios were letting in younger and groovier people.”
The Wicker Man, Brown says, was rushed into production; a function of business machinations. “And that impacted the production in all sorts of unfortunate ways… from its shooting right through to its eventual release.”
Brown's new version of his book brings The Wicker Man history up to date. “I've stripped out a lot of the pretentious rubbish that was a big part of the original text,” he says, “a lot of theorising about horror.” The revised edition now includes details of The Wicker Man cult, attempts at a sequel, as well as an account of the dire 2006 remake.
Brown, who saw the film originally as a teen, says that his own enthusiasm for it hasn't diminished. “The movie was an orphan, 'a bad seed' from the get-go, and I don't think the power brokers knew what they had... but for me it still grows – the more I think about it, the more I'm impressed by it.”
Inside The Wicker Man: How Not to Make a Cult Classic is published by Polygon and is available now.