As Howie stomps around Summerisle with only a vague, distant, magisterial power keeping him safe, it's always clear that he's operating with tacit permission from the villagers. They put up with him until it's time for them to act, and Howie is so insufferable and puritanical that when the tables are turned, it's almost a relief. Knowing how the film was going to end, but ignorant of what a dreary scold the protagonist was, the bar for The Wicker Man turned from being an intriguing, interesting story into can Woodard and Hardy make me feel anything for this guy? Horror films, especially modern ones, aren't usually interested in redemption or finding a common sympathy in their characters, but surprisingly, The Wicker Man very much is, as Howie is able to assert his baseline humanity in the film's final moments. It clears the bar by reminding the viewer that even the most repulsive martinet can be afraid, can be vulnerable, can be deserving of mercy.
As the potential distributor of that mercy, Lee's Lord Summerisle undergoes just as much of a transformation for the viewer, as do the other villagers. Where initially they are a close-knit community unwilling to collaborate with an avatar of a state that does not share their beliefs, they become unswerving zealots resistant to skepticism or inquiry. As their leader, Lee is a fine choice, and without his noble birth, they likely still would choose him for the big chair. His stature and comportment fly in the face of Howie's sweaty discombobulation, with one man clearly no match for the other. Lee also gets to serve as the centerpiece in one of horror's greatest cuts, and he is more than up to the task.
The Wicker Man might have been slandered by one of Nicolas Cage's cash grabs, but the original easily holds up 40 years later. It's a shame Hardy only made two more, much less renowned movies, none likely holding a candle to his auspicious debut. I don't know that anyone would classify the Wicker Man as scary, but that's not really the mode I like my horror in anyway. Atmospheric, definitely. Foreboding, certainly. Unsettling, 100%. The Wicker Man emphatically checks those boxes. B+