September 30, 2023

How horror movie The Wicker Man leaves a family in tatters

How horror movie The Wicker Man leaves a family in tatters

Five years after his father died, Justin Hardy received six sacks of documents that had sat in the loft of his old family home in the Midlands for 50 years.

Among them were scripts, photos, storyboards and personal letters all relating to one film: The Wicker Man.

Although a dud when it first came out in 1973, the move has since gained cult status, with Empire Magazine even calling it ‘the Best British horror film ever made’. A recent re-release of the movie won five-star reviews.

The film was the directorial debut of Justin’s father Robin Hardy, which he bluntly says “f***ed up my family.”

Set on a fictional Scottish island, the story tells of a devoutly Christian police officer (Edward Woodward), who, investigating the disappearance of a local girl, is shocked to discover a town of dancing pagans led by charismatic cult leader Lord Summerisle (played by horror movie icon Christopher Lee).

One of the pagans Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland) attempts to seduce the officer, who has unknowingly been lured to the island for a sacrificial ceremony. 

From phallic sweets and child torture, to eerily beautiful scenery and a movie ending that still shocks to the core – it was a film made to unsettle the audience from the off.

However British Lion, the studio which had bankrolled it, hated the finished product.

They dismissed it as one of the worst movies in history and refused to promote it. In the months after it was released, Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings, Dracula, Star Wars), who played Lord Summerisle, called critics on the phone, begging them to come to a screening, even offering to pay for their tickets.

It was a flop. But then it wasn’t.

Now, fifty years on, Justin and his brother Dominic Hardy, are taking another look at why the film initially bombed only to end up being revered by movie buffs – and also give insight through their documentary Wickermania!, into the chaotic, heartbreaking impact it had on their family.  

Related News

Prior to his infamous movie, Robin had already forged a successful career in advertising, Justin tells Metro. They lived in ‘a very nice house’ in Belgravia with his wife Caroline, Justin and his sister Arabella.

However, after the film’s catastrophic reception, Caroline, who had invested all her money in it, was saddled with the debts while Robin packed his suitcase and left for the US in 1974. It was reported that the director was forced to sleep on a bench in Central Park on his arrival in New York. 

Before he left, Robin came to see his son at school to say goodbye, telling Justin he was leaving and giving him a Saint Christopher, wishing him protection in his travels.

“That was rather dramatic,” remembers Justin, who now works as a historian and filmmaker. “Then he was off and that was that.”

With no alternative and no money, Caroline had to sell the London house and move the family the midlands. For the next four years, Justin assumed his dad was dead.

“My mother was trying to get some response from him, and eventually had to divorce him on the grounds of not having heard from him” he explains. 

“My sister had to change her name from Arabella to Joanna in order to be able to survive a Banbury comprehensive. It was a pretty big, pretty seismic, social change. All these years I have had people saying to me: “God. You’re so lucky. Your dad made The Wicker Man.” But that’s not quite how I see it.

“It was a very sad time. Because, apart from everything else, I’m going: “Well, where’s Dad? Are we going to see him tomorrow? Are we going to see him next week?” And my mother said, “I have no idea. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know how to reach him.”

“I guess it wasn’t a particularly happy childhood view of your dad, adds Justin, who lives in Oxfordshire. ‘It felt like “Where’s the protection? You’ve left my mother with all this?” And she got very ill. She did effectively turn to the bottle and died of liver cirrhosis. The f***-up of this film led to to a downward spiral for the Hardys.”

Five years after he vanished, Robin returned to the UK, flying over to watch his son act in a play, clutching an article about how well the film was doing in San Francisco. 

Justin remembers: ‘I’m not even sure he gave me any notice that he was coming. He was like that. And so at the end of it, I was having my makeup taken off and this man appeared and said, “Hello. I’m your father.” I thought – I was rather glad he didn’t tell me before I went onstage.”

Was Justin pleased to see him? Did he forgive him for deserting him? ‘The psychological truth is that you would have thought a child would say” “Hey, I’m not talking to you. Where have you been all this time?But the reality is, you don’t do that.”

He says. “It’s like you have a second opportunity to meet your dad. And all you want to do is please your dad so he doesn’t go away again. So he didn’t get any pushback from me for a number of years.”

Justin learned that the movie had received a better reception across universities and American film festivals, and people began to see the movie in a new light.

Soon, it was revived as a cult classic – but the damage it had already done to Robin’s family was  irreparable.

“I had to grow up with my sister with a very, very bitter and disappointed, quite heavily-drinking mother,” remembers Justin. “When she died in 1984 in some ways, it was a sort of merciful ending to what had been a sort of horrible endurance.”

Robin eventually had eight children by six different women. As Justin explains, “He had form for having a child, being married to a bit of an heiress, the money starts to run out and he moves on.”

One of these children was Dominic Hardy, who didn’t properly get to know his dad until 1969 when his mum took him to the UK from their home in Canada. 

In the subsequent years, Dominic would fly as an unaccompanied child and spend three to six weeks with Robin and his siblings at summertime or at Christmas.

Dominic, a professor of art history in Montreal, remembers, “I discovered this whole family. Justin and Arabella were the youngest at the time. The summer of 1970, when seven of us were all together for the one and only time, was a mythical time for me. It had such an impact on me. I think the others felt the same way. We really sought each other out in adulthood and made up for lost years.”

Dominic’s memory of Robin was that he was a “flamboyant, charming and in many ways, admirable person. And absolutely fascinating.” 

He didn’t meet him for the first time until he was six years old, his first memory of being taken on a day trip to a planetarium, the park and being bought a train set, the pair of them together on the floor of his bedroom setting up the tracks.

“That was the only memory I had of seeing him with my mum,’ says Dominic. ‘I had a lot of admiration for him and a lot of emulation. But I’m also worried. because just before I was 11 he suffered a heart attack, which nearly killed him.”

Justin adds, “That was a big moment in our family’s history. We all thought he was going to die. He started writing letters to us all. You’re not supposed to be able to make a film if you’ve had a heart attack because you can’t get insured.”

Robin was just 41 at the time, and lucky to survive to finish the film.

Dominic was mesmerised by the screening when the movie first came out. 

Just 12 years old, he was shocked by its ending and stunned by the sexualised scenes. 

Fifty years later, he has seen the film with fresh eyes, thanks to the discovery of endless paperwork left in boxes in that midlands attic. When Hardy’s house was sold, the documents remained – until lockdown, when the buyer approached Justin to return them.

Robin had died in 2016 and when Justin was offered the documents five years later, he rejected them, asking – why dredge up the past? However, following counsel from others, he eventually accepted the boxes and spent time looking through them with Dominic who flew over to the UK from Canada to help.

Their findings have since inspired the pair to make a documentary. “We want to tell the story of the making of ‘The Wicker Man’ from within, from what these documents tell us,’ explains Dominic.’It’s a unique perspective.”

Justin adds, “It was a treasure trove and it took a long time to go through. It was extraordinary to see the letters from Christopher Lee saying, “I think I may have found this project.” From Shaffer saying, “I want to support you to direct your first film.” There’s an extraordinary amount of written material that pertains to every stage of the making of an independent movie.”

However, it’s been a difficult discovery.