THE team behind the cult movie The Wicker Man is returning to Scotland for a belated follow-up which is set to recapture the chilling atmosphere that led to the original being dubbed "the Citizen Kane of horror".
Christopher Lee, who played the pagan lord in the original, which was filmed in Scotland, will be back in The Riding of the Laddie, along with Vanessa Redgrave. And they could be sharing the screen with two of the brightest young talents in showbiz.
Lee brings with him Sean Astin, his American co-star in the current international blockbuster The Lord of the Rings, and discussions are under way with country-and-western singer LeAnn Rimes to complete the principal casting. She has acted on American television and appeared in the film Coyote Ugly.
Filming is scheduled for September, almost exactly 30 years after The Wicker Man was filmed, with locations in the Borders and Glasgow area, as well as Oklahoma.
In the earlier film, a policeman, played by Edward Woodward, visits a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl and discovers a strange pagan community, populated by an international cast including Lee, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt.
The Wicker Man screened as the bottom half of a double-bill in 1974, but has acquired a huge cult following in recent years. It has been the source of countless rumours and myths, including suggestions that Rod Stewart wanted to burn the negative to stop anyone from seeing girlfriend Ekland’s bottom, even though it was a body double and the negative had long been missing anyway.
The film has been the subject of a book and several documentaries and a "director’s cut" will be released on DVD in April.
The latest development is an open-air Wicker Man festival and up to 5,000 people are expected at East Kirkcarsewell Farm, near Dundrennan, in Galloway, on 19-20 July, for screenings, bands and the burning of two giant wicker men.
"It will be like a mini-Glastonbury," said organiser Sid Ambrose.
Stiff Little Fingers are among likely acts and it is hoped the festival will become an annual event.
The film’s chilling climax stems from Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic wars and claims that Druids burned prisoners inside wicker men as a ritual sacrifice. Scotland was chosen as the film’s setting because of its fundamentalist religious sects and remote communities. Although set on an island, it was shot mainly in Galloway.
The Riding of the Laddie takes its name from the Riding of the Marches, the security check on an area’s boundaries, which dates from ancient times and survives in ceremonial form in many parts of Scotland.
The Riding of the Laddie is not strictly a sequel to The Wicker Man - the characters are different - but it will have the same director, producer and star, and a similar plot about sinister goings-on.
"Christopher is a magus figure and Vanessa is his wife," said writer-director Robin Hardy. "The two Americans are born again Christians, who happen to come to Scotland to do door-to-door preaching, like the Mormons.
"In The Wicker Man, you think it’s quite possible that Howie [the policeman] is going to triumph - the police usually do. In The Laddie, you know, for pretty damn sure, that something ghastly is going to happen. But you don’t know when, and you don’t know where, and you don’t know how."
Hardy revealed that there will be a major hunt sequence, although the hunters seem unlikely to settle for animal quarry.
"It’s a fantastic story," said Lee. He believes it possesses the same exotic, erotic and thrilling ingredients that made The Wicker Man a classic, but that it could be even better.
Lee is 80 this year, but the actor who became a star as Dracula more than 40 years ago, is enjoying a revival with major roles in The Lord of the Rings and the next Star Wars film.
Scottish Screen, the official film agency, is treating the project very seriously.
"We would obviously be delighted if the production could come to fruition," said Kevin Cowle, who is in charge of the locations office. "It will be wonderful to see how the concept of the original film is adapted."
It was during the protracted production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand that Lee passed the script to Sean Astin. Their roles in that particular epic, of evil wizard Saruman and plucky hobbit Sam Gamgee, may just be a foretaste of what is to come in The Riding of the Laddie.
Most of the filming for the original was carried out near Newton Stewart, with some scenes on the Isle of Skye. The Ellangowan Hotel at Creetown provided the key interiors for the bar of the Summerisle pub - the Green Man - in the film, with other filming for graveyard and maypole scenes being done at Anwoth Kirk by Gatehouse, about six miles away.