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Robin Hardy, 86, who set ‘The Wicker Man’ cult alight

NEW YORK — Robin Hardy, director of the horror film “The Wicker Man,” which failed at the box office when released in 1973 but went on to attract a large cult following, died July 1. He was 86.

The University of Malta, where he had spoken recently, said on its Facebook page that Victoria Webster, Mr. Hardy’s wife, had informed the school of his death. She did not specify where he died or the cause.

When Mr. Hardy, a television director, decided he wanted to make a horror film, he found an enthusiastic collaborator in Anthony Shaffer, who wrote the play “Sleuth” and the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock film “Frenzy.” Mr. Hardy and Shaffer, partners in a production company, were avid fans of the horror films made by Hammer Studios. Together they set about making a film that would take the Hammer approach in a new direction.

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Shaffer, using the novel “Ritual” by David Pinner as a basis, came up with the story of a devout Christian policeman, Sergeant Neil Howie, who travels to a Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a girl. In Mr. Hardy’s hands, the island and its inhabitants — led by the priestlike Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee, took on a mystifying aura, with bizarre events unfolding.

Howie beholds, with growing horror, a pagan society in which sexual rituals are practiced openly and village schoolchildren are encouraged to talk about phallic symbols and other topics not in the usual curriculum. The sense of dread builds to a startling discovery when Howie realizes he has been lured to his doom. In the film’s final scene, he is burned alive inside a giant man made of wicker, sacrificed to appease the local gods and ensure a bountiful apple harvest.

British Lion, the company that produced the film, deemed it unsellable. Lee, in his autobiography, asserted that the company’s new head, Michael Deeley, called it one of the 10 worst films he had ever seen. Deeley protested that he had called it one of the 10 most unsalable films he had ever seen. In any case, British Lion distributed it halfheartedly and it failed miserably at the box office.

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“The Wicker Man” lived on, cherished by horror-movie devotees who argued it belonged in the front ranks of the genre.

In 1977 the magazine Cinefantastique called it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of horror movies.” The Guardian, in 2010, put it in fourth place on a list of the 24 greatest horror films in history, after “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Don’t Look Now,” and ahead of “The Shining” and “The Exorcist.”

“It’s stood the test of time because it’s about ideas,” the film historian Jonny Murray, an organizer of the first international “Wicker Man” conference at the University of Glasgow, said in 2003. “It engages you on an intellectual level. It’s about paganism: the clash between superstition and modernity; authority and sexuality.”

Mr. Hardy made only a handful of films: “The Fantasist” (1986), about a serial killer who seduces his victims over the telephone, and “The Wicker Tree” (2001), about two Texas evangelists who bring their religious message to a remote Scottish island, with disastrous results. At the time of his death, he was trying to raise money for another “Wicker Man” film, “The Wrath of the Gods.”

With Shaffer, Mr. Hardy wrote a novelization of “The Wicker Man,” published in 1978. The film was the subject of two documentaries released in 2001, “The ‘Wicker Man’ Enigma” and “Burnt Offering: The Cult of ‘The Wicker Man.’ ” The director Neil LaBute remade the film in 2006 with Nicolas Cage as Sergeant Howie.

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In 2013, Mr. Hardy described the filming of the final scene of “The Wicker Man” to The Guardian. “The wicker man was enormous,” he said. “The stunned look on Howie’s face when he first sees it wasn’t acting. Up until then, Edward had only seen drawings. He clambered in and we set it on fire, filming from the inside.”