It began on 6 December 1973 in the most unlikely circumstances.

The Metropole Cinema on Victoria Street in London had seen much better days: opened in 1929, it could seat just under 1,400 eager viewers, and had hosted the European première of Spartacus in 1960 at which Princess Margaret had given the Kirk Douglas/Stanley Kubrick epic the royal imprimatur. In 1963/64, it had been home to a mammoth 98-week run of another behemoth, Lawrence of Arabia, and it still had the moxie to snatch the royal première of The Sand Pebbles, a meaty tale of the United States Navy in 1920s China starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Candice Bergen, in 1967.

Six years on, however, times were harder. That Thursday evening, the best the Metropole could offer was Nic Roeg’s tense, edgy and controversial thriller Don’t Look Now, which had been running for seven weeks already, and, as a second feature, a strange, folklore-infused, almost dreamline horror film written by Anthony Shaffer, then still basking in the glory of the rich theatrical camp of Sleuth the year before.

The Wicker Man had some cinematic heft. Although the central character of police sergeant Neil Howie was played by Edward Woodward, familiar to television audiences but, even at 43, yet to make a big-screen impact, he faced off against Christopher Lee. The towering, bass-baritone-voiced Hammer Horror legend was already fixed in the public eye as Dracula after eight outings as the Count, but he had also played Oriental super-villian Dr Fu Manchu five times. With wartime service in intelligence — and perhaps the SAS — and the convoluted but glamorous status of step-cousin of Ian Fleming, Lee had charisma which burst from the screen.

What was this strange film? [Spoiler alert] The plot was simple, if gruesome: tipped off by an anonymous letter, a devoutly Christian policeman travels to the Hebridean island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He finds a close-knit population celebrating May Day by venerating the ancient Celtic gods, and ends the film burning alive as a sacrifice inside the eponymous wicker man, as Christopher Lee leads the locals in singing the mediaeval English round ‘Sumer is Icumen in’. As blank details on the page, it is simple, almost simplistic, and offers huge capacity for the downright silly.

The Wicker Man had its roots in the late 1960s. Lee wanted to vary his diet of Hammer Horror and discussed with Shaffer and Canadian producer Peter Snell the idea of a film tackling paganism and folk culture. Shaffer discovered a 1967 novel called Ritual by David Pinner, a RADA-trained actor and writer, which portrayed an isolated Cornish community and a supposed ritualistic child murder. Each contributed £5,000 — roughly £80,000 today — to buy the rights to Ritual and Shaffer set to work on an adaptation.

The trio wanted to make a horror film which was, in Shaffer’s phrase, “a little more literate” than its competition. In particular, they shunned gore and violence, by then the currency of mainstream horror cinema: this was the era of Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Wizard of Gore and Slaughter Hotel. Around this time the three became a quadrumvirate when director Robin Hardy joined. Hardy was a long-time friend of Shaffer’s and they shared a vision:

“Tony and I were great horror film buffs and used to see lots of the original Hammers,” Hardy’s Guardian obituary reveals. “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.”

All four wanted a scrupulously researched and thoughtful product. One powerful influence was The Golden Bough, a comparative study of mythology and religion by Scottish folklorist Sir James George Frazer. What had started as a two-volume work in 1890 sprawled into 12 volumes by 1915, and the team’s reliance on this exhaustive research allowed them to create a rounded, fleshed-out depiction of a society both modern and ancient.

In some ways, it’s a miracle that The Wicker Man was made at all. The studio, British Lion Films, had lost a million pounds in 1972 and was bought by Barclay Securities to save it from financial collapse. But the Barclay boss, John Bentley, had a reputation as an asset-stripper and was known to want to sell off Shepperton Studios. Nevertheless, he appointed Peter Snell as managing director, and the green light was given for Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man.

Filming had touches of the chaotic. Although it is set around May Day, filming took place in the autumn of 1972, and the crew could be found glueing artificial blossom onto trees. The budget was only around £350,000, and Christopher Lee, anxious to get the film made, often worked without being paid, as did other members of the crew. The bulk of the shooting was done not on a remote island but in small market towns and villages in south-west Scotland: Stranraer, Gatehouse of Fleet, Newton Stewart, Kirkcudbright, Anwoth and Creetown. The Isle of Whithorn, just off the coast, was the scene for the film’s climax, with St Ninian’s Cave and the clifftops of Burrow Head providing a dramatic backdrop. Scotland’s stately homes made their presence felt too, with scenes shot at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire and Floors Castle in Roxburghshire.

The cast was a strange mix of journeymen, locally pressed amateurs and unlikely European stars. Britt Ekland, the Swedish model and actress who had been married to Peter Sellers (and would feature alongside Lee in the Bond adventure The Man With The Golden Gun in 1974), played villager Willow McGregor, but her voice was dubbed by jazz singer Annie Ross and, without her knowledge, she was replaced for the iconic nude dancing sequence allegedly because her contract only allowed nudity from the waist up. Ingrid Pitt, born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland before the Second World War but famous as a German spy working for the British in Where Eagles Dare and the eponymous heroine of 1972’s Countess Dracula, was recruited to play what she described as the “nymphomaniac librarian” (actually her character is registrar of births, deaths and marriages).

The film that was shown on 6 December 1973 was an 87-minute cut which left a lot of material out. Studio bosses found the starkness of the conclusion, as Sergeant Howie perishes in the burning wicker man, horrifyingly explicit and suggested various alterations. That proposal was deflected, but cuts were made elsewhere. There are theses to be written on the different versions of the film: what is important here though is that The Wicker Man was at the time thought a creditable piece of work.

“Absolute nonsense, of course”

David Mcgillivray opened his review in the Monthly Film Bulletin with “Absolute nonsense, of course”, but went on to praise Shaffer’s screenplay and pay tribute to director of photography Harry Waxman and art director Seamus Flannery. He praised “a cleverly dovetailed script of the highest order” and noted that frequent threats to tip into melodrama were always brought back from the edge. Ultimately it was “an immensely enjoyable piece of hokum”.

Some delivered grudging verdicts. Dilys Powell in The Sunday Times wrote “The story turns into a barbarous joke, too horrible for pleasure, but one must admire the playing and the distinction with which Hardy has directed Shaffer’s screenplay”. At The Sunday Telegraph, Margaret Hinxman allowed that the film showed a “genuine sense of what is horrific”, but, in the end, it lacked “the satisfactory inter-relation of the ordinary and the extraordinary that marks the best fantasy fiction”.

In 1974, at the third Paris International Festival of Fantastic and Science-Fiction Film, a raucous, modish gathering at the Cinéma Monge Palace, the film won the Golden Licorn for best picture. In many ways it caught a mood of the time: in Britain there was a musical folk revival spearheaded by groups like Steeleye Span, Pentangle and the Albion Band. Accompanying that was a resurgence of interest in the occult, mysticism and pagan rituals, and The Wicker Man was hitting all those points. But with virtually no budget, and a rapidly changing cinema landscape, the film quickly began to fade into obscurity.

Distribution in the United States was uneven, hardly surprising for such a quirky film produced by a cash-strapped British studio. National General, the successor to 20th Century Fox’s theatre division, signed a deal for $300,000 to distribute The Wicker Man, then four days later filed for bankruptcy. Warner Brothers picked up the rights and, beginning in May 1974, held test viewings in drive-in theatres and a college theatre in Atlanta, expanding to southern California later in the year. But it was a very slow, low-budget process: by 1977 it had reached Minneapolis, Mississippi and Louisiana, then Oregon, Connecticut and Chicago the following year.

The film had a boost in 1977 when an American horror magazine, Cinefantastique, devoted a whole edition to The Wicker Man. David Bartholomew lavished praise on it, describing it lovingly in great detail and dubbing it “the Citizen Kane of horror films”. This set the direction of travel: gradually, undramatically, the film would be discovered and rediscovered, a connoisseur’s delight but rather under the mainstream radar. But it was and remains a hugely potent work of cinema.

Christopher Lee, interviewed in 2005, named The Wicker Man as his career highlight.

“It’s become one of the great cult movies of all time. That’s the story of my career really, making cult movies. And I’ve always said it’s the best film I’ve ever made, even in its butchered form, which it is. Even the DVD is butchered. What happened to that film I still don’t know. The negative disappeared from that day to this.”

lee and ww
Lee and Woodward face off in the Wicker Man

Edward Woodward, his co-star, agreed it was one of his favourite films, and that Sergeant Howie was the best role he’d ever played. He also described the closing of the film, as the burning wicker man collapses, as the best final shot in cinema. When The Guardian ranked the 25 best horror films of all time in 2010, The Wicker Man came in fourth.

The weird masterpiece

What is the lure of this film? I’m with Lee and Woodward, I think it’s a masterpiece, not just for its genre but of cinema as a whole. But it is a weird masterpiece. The executives at British Lion may have found the finale strong stuff, but the rest of the film, as the creators had intended, is not blood-soaked or conventionally shocking. It is, however, startling unsettling and eerie, almost as soon as Sergeant Howie’s seaplane touches down.

Partly it’s the isolation of Summerisle. The locals are friendly and welcoming enough, but as Howie explores the island, the direction brilliantly conveys his uneasy sense of being watched, observed, somehow judged. The Green Man Inn where Howie lodges (actually the Ellengowan Hotel in Creetown) is on the surface almost idyllic. True, the stiff, puritanical Howie is repelled by the bawdy songs the villagers are singing, but our sympathies are largely with them rather than him. It’s a bar of its time, the early 1970s, and if the innkeeper now has a whiff of David Walliams’s Ray McCooney from Little Britain, that is hardly a fault of the film.

The interaction between Woodward’s Howie and the local residents is a critical source of discomfort. The viewer wants the policeman to unbend just a little, to lighten up: these are not bad people, just open and frank and perhaps too forward. But there’s no harm in them. All right, Howie represents the law and stands on his dignity, but a thaw will surely ensue.

Except that there very much is harm in them. The blank denial of the community that Rowan Morrison, the missing girl, ever existed makes you uneasy. They lie fluently, almost innocently, and you begin to wonder who, in fact, is telling the truth. What is truth, for that matter? Summerisle is such a secluded, isolated, quarantined atmosphere that it seems to upset and confound expectations. This is true through-the-looking-glass territory, and that, of course, is wholly deliberate.

For me, the folklore is a rich component of the eerieness. Partly it’s the juxtaposition of familiarity and otherness. But it’s also the superficial jollity, the childlike nature of the hobby-horse and Mr Punch, all underlain by a deep vein of the sinister. And it is raw, elemental, connected to nature. We see this idea driven home again and again: not only is the film centred on the May Day holiday, but the harvest is an ongoing motif. So, too, in a slightly self-conscious 1970s way, is sex. We see couples having sex in the fields, there is a mother breastfeeding her child, Howie finds the registrar naked in her bath (is there a hint she has been masturbating?), and, famously, Britt Ekland’s character Willow taunts and tempts Sergeant Howie by dancing naked in the room adjoining his.

Christopher Lee’s performance is central, as the seemingly benevolent and genial Lord Summerisle. He is the grandson of an ambitious Victorian agronomist who developed strains of fruit tree suitable for the Hebridean climate, from which it seems to have been a short step to encouraging a revival of pagan fertility gods and goddesses to harness the energies of the local residents. Lee is on top form, courteous and charming as a charismatic aristocrat with strong prefiguring of his Francisco Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, which began filming weeks before The Wicker Man was released. He is courtly and at ease, a domineering figure in tweeds and mad-professor hair, every inch a credible cult leader. And it’s somehow shocking yet predictable when he appears dressed as a woman towards the film’s climax, with a chalky painted face and a long dark wig. Yes, you think; yes, of course it would end like this.

The end is, as the studio executives observed, shocking. Summerisle tells Sergeant Howie that he, not Rowan Morrison, not the missing girl who is now revealed, is the island’s sacrifice that year. He has fulfilled the foretelling of the gods: he came to Summerisle of his own volition, he has “the power of a king” (policing before the Macpherson Report, perhaps), he is virgin and he is a “fool”. He is forced into the gigantic wicker man along with sundry domestic animals and it is set ablaze.

There will be a dramatic twist, the audience tells itself. Howie will somehow be saved, or will make his escape. But no: the end is simple. Sergeant Howie burns alive in the great wicker man, which begins to collapse in flames as the sun sets. Pious to the last, he recites Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, but the greatest and most terrible moment of the film—one of the most terrible moments in cinema—is when he finally sees his fate, and on his face is the sudden, shattering doubt. He is mouthing the words of “the bliss that knows no end”, but the flames are high now, and the dying animals are shrieking, and all the while the locals are singing their rousing song. And the head of the wicker man bows as it folds in on itself and the sun sinks low in the sky. It is bleak beyond words.

Everything about The Wicker Man is weird, in the sense of unearthly, supernatural, but also in the Scots sense of weird as connected with destiny. It is a mad, strange, wild film yet when it ends, it is almost as if nothing could have been any other way. It’s easy to see the early-1970s folkiness or the absurdity of the local characters, and individually parts of it waver within amusement. But I challenge you to watch The Wicker Man, watch with full attention, and not come away deeply, viscerally unsettled. It is that good.

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.