Robin Hardy, English author and film director best known for helming the classic 1973 suspense horror film The Wicker Man died on July 1, friends confirmed. He was 86. The BBC first reported the news. A native of Surrey, Hardy’s career as a director was kicked off in Canada and the United States in the 1960s with episodes of the cultural omnibus television show Esso World Theater. From there, he staked out a career making commercials and educational films.

Hardy made his feature directorial debut with The Wicker Man, coming aboard the project thanks to his friendship with screenwriter Anthony Shaffer – the two had previously run the production company Hardy, Shaffer & Associates together. Channeling then-current anxieties about changing social mores, and taking advantage of increased freedom afforded to filmmakers with regard to content, the film follows the story of a devout Christian police officer (Edward Woodward) sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on a remote British island. There he discovers the inhabitants are a secret community of pagans who worship Celtic gods, engage in disturbing sexual rites and folk medication, and who practice human sacrifice whenever there is a poor harvest.

The Wicker Man

Troubled by production difficulties and uncertainties – co-star Christopher Lee even appeared in the film for free in order to keep the budget under control – The Wicker Man was released with little promotion only after severe cuts were made to the film, reducing its run time to 87 minutes. Lee himself was unhappy with the effect these cuts had on the narrative but still offered to pay for critics to see the film. Despite these problems, The Wicker Man was a moderate success in theaters and received significant praise from critics. By the mid 1970s it began to be regarded as one of the most important horror films ever made and by 1979, Hardy was able to secure release of a 99-minute restored version of the film into theaters, with an even longer version ending up on home video during the 1980s.

Praised as one of the greatest British genre films of all time, The Wicker Man developed a very significant cult following and would eventually wield profound influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers. Among them was Cornetto Trilogy director Edgar Wright, who paid tribute to Hardy today on Twitter, saying that without The Wicker Man, his Hot Fuzz wouldn’t exist.

Director Ben Wheatley also drew inspiration from The Wicker Man for his controversial 2011 exploitation film Kill List, and most recently, Radiohead’s video for the band’s “Burn the Witch” single was based directly on it. Metal legends Iron Maiden also wrote a song about the film for their 2000 release “Brave New World”. Later in life, Christopher Lee would cite the film as his personal favorite among the dozens in which he appeared.

Hardy directed only two other films – The Fantasist (1986) and a spiritual sequel to The Wicker Man, 2011’s The Wicker Tree. He also wrote several novels, among them a novelization of The Wicker Man, a sequel of sorts to the film called Cowboys for Christ released in 2006, and his 1981 novel The Education of Don Juan. In the 1990s he founded the production company Hardy & Sons with his son, TV director Justin Hardy.