It seems a revival of interest in “folk horror” has occurred, due to the vexing ambiance of The Witch. “Folk”, in this term, means the traditionalism of different cultures. Every culture started with their own customs and beliefs, some more horrid than others, but the way they were kept through history was by tales or songs by the fire. In film, ‘folk’ has been interpreted as historical traditions mostly in rural settings. There are many mysterious and disturbing tales to fascinate horror fans, but also, they allow us to gain perspective of what people believed in and how this affected their lives.
Although it may be a small sub-genre, there are some wonderfully frightful ideas of religious sacrifice and worship that are up there with the best horror movies. Not all are explicit or gory, here are eight prime examples of folk horror that carry inspiration from all over the world to invoke fear.
Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm (1968)
Witchfinder General is loosely based on the novel of the same name which covered the barbaric 17th Century witch trials, carried out by the infamous real-life figure, Matthew Hopkins. Set in a time filled with paranoia and bloodlust, women are tortured and killed for any mere sign of witchcraft and devil worship. During the English Civil War Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy ) a Parliamentarian soldier returns home to discover his fiancé has been sadistically tortured by self-appointed ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price). Heartbroken, Richard seeks revenge but is soon driven down a dark path of misery and madness.
Originally intended to be a low-budget exploitation film, director Michael Reeves was inspired by spaghetti westerns and wanted to implement this into British horror. At the film’s first release critics were disgusted with the exploitative imagery despite the film being cut by British censorship. When the film was released in America, mostly untouched, it was very well received and now Witchfinder General is a cult favorite in the horror genre. There are aspects of the film that depict the western genre in style and barbarism which reflect the ideas Reeves had been so heavily influenced by. Reeves also shows the suffering implemented by Hopkins which is what makes this movie so terrifying. The power Hopkins held to make people yield at his will and cause horrific deaths of innocent locals is what makes this a definitive folk tale.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)
A beautiful curiosity that is part of the Czechoslovak New Wave, a dreamy yet disconcerting coming of age film. Valerie is a young girl living under her strict and estranged aunt whilst dealing with her own sexual awakening. Valerie finds herself in a nightmarish haze, stalked and allured by a terrifying vampire, she has little companions to trust, she may not even be able to trust her one friend, Eagle. The adults in this film are presented as evil characters, it seems everyone is out to get Valerie as the film plays on sex, fear and religion that all merge in Valerie’s fantastical world.
This wondrous nonlinear fairytale comes from the imaginative director, Jaromil Jireš, inspired by fairy tales such as Alice in Wonderland and Little Red-Riding Hood, Jireš presents many important themes with metaphors for entering adulthood. It’s an extraordinary journey about a young girl who feels isolated in her own town and within her own family. It might just be her tortured mind making up nightmares but her local community is filled with corruption and monsters that remain elusive to us throughout the film, a folktale if ever there was one.
Blood on Satan’s Claw aka Satan’s Skin (1971)
A vehement tale as chaos and demonic corruption infect a small English town when a mysterious corpse is discovered. The town judge dismisses it, but a group of curious teens go snooping around the remains, they conclude that the body was once possessed. Soon after, they begin performing strange acts and demonic rituals in hopes of contacting the devil. People become infected, growing claws and thick hair on their bodies, known as the devil’s skin. Terrified by these beastly deformities, the townspeople are soon riled up and make efforts to put an end to it.
Probably one of producer Tigon’s most notorious horrors set in the 17th century. Jumping on previous successes such as Witchfinder General, director Pier Haggard and writer Robert Wynne-Simmons have created a clever and credible film which interprets the ignorance and curiosities of both the elders and the youth. An isolated rural community plagued by an ancient force is the significant trope here that successfully places this film in the “folk horror” category. It accomplishes social ideals whilst presenting chilling and earthy atmospherics, not to mention the mystical and airy score of the film which resonates as darkness unfolds in the village. Playing on the lust and greed of human instinct the film is profoundly sexual though it also highlights how the youth and the poor can be so easily dismissed of credibility.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The epitome of folk horror. A missing girl, an isolated village and a deviating journey of contemporary pagan culture and worship. It ticks all the boxes with a brilliant cast who deliver performances both troubling and enthralling. A devout Christian, Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is in search of a missing girl that sends him to the small Scottish island of Summerisle. Howie is an outsider to this extremely close-knit community. He gradually becomes frustrated with their capricious attitude and their inability to cooperate. Suspicions heighten over the entire community as Howie becomes perturbed by their way of living and their pagan beliefs. The film also stars the late Christopher Lee in one of his greatest and most sinister roles, he claimed The Wicker Man to be one of the best films he had ever made.
With an alarming final act that has become one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, The Wicker Man holds up above most British b-movies of it’s time and unexpectedly became one of the greatest, fear invoking British horror films in history. Just make sure it’s the original and not the disastrous 2006 remake that got nominated for five Razzie awards. Director Robin Hardy won’t give up on the films success even after The Wicker Tree which got little reception in 2011. Hardy is attempting to crowd-fund a third sequel The Wrath of the Gods. It could be another success and perhaps one that could be added to this list, or it may just be that the original stands alone best.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)An enticing mystery to rack your brains. Valentine’s Day in 1900, a party of school girls and their teacher disappear without a trace when they take a trip to Hanging Rock. An adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name. It’s a brilliant Australian classic that is haunting in mystery and sensibility. To this day audiences still question the unsolved mystery of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which premiered over 40 years ago. Released in the midst of the Ozploitation era, low-budget sex, action and horror was coming thick and fast, but Picnic at Hanging Rock raised the bar with it’s subtle references of sexuality and stunning cinematography. It is a very important piece of Australian cinema, not just horror.
The frustration of the party that is left behind provokes dreamlike scenes both eerie and disorientating. An unravelling of what may have happened only leaves you with more questions and suspense. The unforgettable panpipes spawn a reverie of hysteria that envelops you into the film. It’s the sense of historical secrets and the attraction to nature that conjures familiar themes of a “folk horror” film. The real beauty of this film is the unknown, there is no gore, no monster, and it lacks the usual genre motifs. What is most unsettling is the uncertainty, the emptiness that must be filled with our own imaginations, a technique which can be far more terrifying.
The Devil Rides Out aka The Devil’s Bride (1966)
A real force of good vs evil, set in the English countryside, two men pay a surprise visit to the son of an old friend, Simon. It soon becomes apparent that Simon is involved in a satanic cult and they bring it upon themselves to save him. Based on the same-titled 1934 novel by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out is a Hammer classic starring the late and great Christopher Lee as our main protagonist, a rare role in Lee’s career.
Although a figure of good, Lee plays with his usual authority and intensity through the entire film and that is just the icing on the cake. The dramatization and pace of the film fills you with anticipation and places you on the edge of your seat. The cinematography depicts the beauty and isolation of rural England, setting a tasteful yet sinister atmosphere. As with most Hammer horror there is sketchy dialogue here and there but director Terence Fisher creates a suspenseful feature which restrains from being overly horrific, despite it’s subject matter. Christopher Lee has often said that out of all his roles this was by far his favorite ( alongside The Wicker Man) and the actor would have liked to have seen a remake with the advance of special effects. Without Lee’s prestigious force however, it’s doubtful that it could ever be made in a more effective form, without him.
Kill List (2011)
Two former soldiers turned hit-men, Jay and Gal, embark on a new mission. Jay is suffering PTS after their previous mission became a disaster merely a year ago. Their new assignment promises a fat payoff, Jay needing the money to support his family agrees to do it. What was originally a simple task soon becomes more complex and mysterious as Jay falls victim to something much darker than himself. Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley has made his stamp on horror with this twisted tale. Most of Wheatley’s work could be put on this list but Kill List has by far the most prominent analogy of folk-horror. His auteur style for mixing dark comedy and rural horror has been a success in giving the audience a viscerally entertaining experience.
Much like a lot of folk-horror from the 60’s and 70’s, Kill List is introduced as a mysterious thriller letting the terror gradually unfold; whether it be real beasts or the evil manifested in the townspeople. Wheatley plays around with themes and ideas creating a ambiguous narrative, though it seems the most consistent focus is primal instinct. Influenced by Stanley Kubrick, Wheatley focuses on the imagery of the film more than the script, which was changed and improvised during filming. He wanted the film to be unpredictable, subtle one moment, then extremely explicit and violent the next, and this is a trait Wheatley has managed so well. The dramatic twist ending may only open the audience to more questions but it promises to stay in your mind for a long time.
The Hallow (2015)
Aspiring to mix sub-genres that included body horror and creature feature, Hardy evidently went down the road of folk-horror. The Hallow is a British/Irish co-production influenced by Irish folklore and fairytales. Director and co-writer Corin Hardy was inspired by Ray Harryhausen and cult horrors such as Evil Dead and The Thing, which most definitely shows with this first feature. His love of monsters resonates in The Hallow but he also managed to veer away from the typical Vampires and Werewolves we see so much of today. Instead we have a family living in a remote mill house in Ireland terrorized by demonic creatures living in the surrounding woods. The family are fighting for survival against these ungodly creatures.
Shot on location in and around Irish forests and lakes, the film doesn’t only have the folk tale but also the earthy and rural cinematography that captures realism. The fluid movement of the camera builds a mystical and dangerous atmosphere typical of a folk-horror film as it merges isolation with nature. As for the creatures, Hardy used a mixture of practical and CGI effects to create a real presence and creepiness. The effects of CGI alone would have more than likely made the creatures too clean and unrealistic but joined with practical effects and lighting magic they were able to create more sinister shots. Like with many films of this sub-genre, it’s a slow burner that builds up to a highly dramatic climax revealing mythological secrets that could well be followed up in a sequel.