Pleasure and Pain in Cult Cinema – A Case Study in ‘The Wicker Man’

Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling, often using intertextual references, gore, leaving loose ends or creating a sense of nostalgia. They frequently have troublesome production histories, coloured by accidents, failures, legends and mysteries that involve their stars and directors, and in spite of often-limited accessibility, they have a continuous market value and a long-lasting public presence.

Mathijs and Mendik, The Cult Film Reader

No film better represents the life cycle of a cult film than Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Initially a box office flop, the film vanished almost without a trace until a resurrection in America in the late 1970s, lauded then as “the Citizen Kane of Horror”. Now, the film is not only considered one of the best British films of all time, but is also part of the “unholy trinity” which form the bedrock of the now very popular folk-horror genre. But, as alluded to by Mathijs and Mendik above, the road travelled by the film, its cast, crew and creators (Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer) was not an easy one…

Drawing on footage shot for the upcoming documentary Children of The Wicker Man, this talk will consider the ways in which audiences and fans of the film have spent the past fifty years trying to understand every aspect of how this remarkable film came into being. The more sobering discoveries of the documentary, which in-part presents documents from Robin Hardy’s study thought lost, mirror the tragedy and sacrifice at the heart of The Wicker Man narrative. What pleasure do audiences derive, even today, not only from the diegetic film world itself, but from the meta stories of its production? Indeed, what price did this have, and what pain was endured by the film’s makers to get it finished?

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Christopher Nunn
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Dr Chris Nunn is the former Festival Director of Screentest: The UK’s National Student Film Festival, and has been championing aspiring filmmaking talent for nearly a decade. Passionate about filmmaking education, he completed his PhD entitled Towards a New Film Pedagogy: Recrafting Undergraduate Filmmaking Education for an Expanded Field in 2019 and continues to broaden research in this area. In 2021 Chris became co-convenor of ‘Film/making Pedagogy’ a new ‘Special Interest Group’ as part of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS). He is also currently Associate Editor of the Film Education Journal. In 2022 Chris, along with Justin and Dominic Hardy, began making a feature documentary Children of The Wicker Man, about the 1973 cult film and the director, Robin Hardy. The film is due to be released in 2024.

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