It is strange to think that there was a time when folk horror was not a highly visible, easily recognisable subgenre. Yet, for a long time, this style of filmmaking was little more than a faded memory of the 1970s, sealed away alongside orange and avocado wallpaper patterns and shag carpeting in the recesses of our collective imagination. While certain films of this type endured – the iconic Wicker Man (1973) has long been considered a touchstone of British cinema – others faded into obscurity. For many, folk horror existed only in dim recollections of uncanny water safety adverts and eerie BBC specials like The Stone Tape (1972). Since the 2000s, however, folk horror has experienced something of a revival. In a 2003 interview with Fangoria, Piers Haggard described his 1971 film Blood on Satan’s Claw as an attempt to “make a folk horror film” (qtd. in Scovell 7). Less than a decade later, Mark Gatiss’s BBC4 documentary A History of Horror (2010) devoted an entire episode to “folk horror,” describing it as a subgenre characterised by an “obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions” (ibid). Once this mode of filmmaking was christened and its key conventions mapped out, the subgenre experienced a revival, with the 2010s witnessing a glut of contemporary folk horror films, including Kill List (2011), A Field in England (2013), The Witch (2015), Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (2017) and Midsommar (2019).
The first wave of British folk horror films, those produced in the 1970s, undoubtedly possessed a set of recognisable conventions. Critic Adam Scovell describes this as the “Folk Horror Chain,” an interlocking series of concerns that were shared by most folk horror films and encompassed a preoccupation with landscape, isolation and skewed belief systems – all of which invariably culminated in a climactic happening or summoning (18-19). Despite the replication of this chain across films of the period, folk horror films of the 1970s were created independent of any popular template. They were, for the most part, simply responding to post-Summer Love anxieties about the waning hippie movement, the destruction of the environment, and the often-uncomfortable encounters between tradition and progress that were taking place in the second half of the twentieth century. Modern folk horror has a wealth of pre-existing texts, critical writings and academic scholarship from which to draw. Indeed, many filmmakers have transformed analytical works like Gattis’s History of Horror and Scovell’s “Folk Horror Chain” into models to be replicated, a framework upon which their own movies can be constructed. There is even a set of stock folk horror icons that can be employed to signal a film’s generic affiliation: straw or wicker figures, animal masks, white robes, floral crowns and wreaths. Consequently, while there are many highly inventive recent interpretations of the folk horror tradition (see: Hagazussa or the 2018 mockumentary Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made), other works seem content to limit themselves to a fairly superficial replication of folk horror iconography (see: Season 3 of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).
Sacrilege (2020), the debut feature film from writer-director David Creed, sits somewhere between these extremes. On the one hand, it is a promising first feature that incorporates some engaging new ideas and makes excellent use of its stunning rural setting; on the other, the narrative is somewhat formulaic, and the film’s employment of folk horror motifs seems largely superficial. Sacrilege centres around four friends – Kayla (Tamryn Payne), Trish (Emily Wyatt), Blake (Sian Abrahams) and Stacey (Naomi Willow) – who travel to the remote village of Mabon for a weekend break. After the foursome attends a local festival, each of the girls begins to suffer hallucinations centred on her greatest fear. The isolated community, it seems, is intent on sacrificing them to their deity, a goddess named, like the village, Mabon.
Creed clearly has a good understanding of the folk horror subgenre and what makes it effective. There is a palpable sense of foreboding as the young women travel from their fast-paced urban home to the quiet, timeless countryside where Mabon is situated. Indeed, it is in establishing the isolation of the remote village that Creed truly shines as a director. Following a promising (and tense!) opening scene during which an unnamed man attempts to flee from a country cottage and makes it as far as his car before spontaneously combusting, the film cuts to a magnificent title sequence during which aerial shots sweep over mountains and forests. This sequence effectively captures the lush yet eerie landscapes of south-west England. Sacrilege is in fact interspersed with such scenes of rural isolation. Creed clearly establishes himself as a director with an impressive capacity to bring out the inherent weirdness of the English landscape, while cinematographer Sarah Smither displays an extraordinary command of the aerial shot.
As promising as the opening sequences are, the film nevertheless falls flat when we are introduced to the four protagonists. The acting from the main performers comes across as stilted and unnatural. There is a sort of inauthenticity to their delivery that echoes some the shoddier British soap operas. At the same time, the characters themselves are rather one-dimensional. With their “girlie weekends” and social media obsessions, they possess the kind of stereotypical femininity more suited to a thirty-second TV commercial than a feature-length cinematic narrative. The folk horror aspects of the film often appear equally superficial. The girls attend a strange local ritual, later revealed as a sacrifice intended to appease Mabon, but we learn little about the goddess’s followers (beyond their proclivity for wicker figures, animal masks and torches). The village seems to be either entirely inhabited by cult members or at least run by them, but the cult itself and its members remain relatively underdeveloped. If we contrast Sacrilege (somewhat unfairly) with The Wicker Man, the flatness of its antagonists becomes apparent. While The Wicker Man never falls into the trap of giving too much away, the audience still gets a clear sense of the cult’s beliefs, its role in the community and the agendas of its key members. In Sacrilege, we learn almost nothing about the villagers, their rituals or their beliefs. Likewise, if folk horror is a subgenre intimately linked to Britain’s folklore and landscape, Sacrilege fails to establish a meaningful connection between its cult and the place they inhabit. There is no sense of history here, no sense of ancient beliefs that have burrowed into and taken root in the fields and furrows of the English countryside.
Still, Sacrilege does offer some interesting innovations. The openly lesbian relationship between Kayla and Trish adds a degree of nuance to their characterisation, particularly considering mainstream horror’s tendency to Other queer characters. Likewise, hints at Kayla’s backstory, which allude to assault and domestic abuse, suggest a degree of complexity absent from much of the film. Early on, we discover that Kayla was severely assaulted by a previous partner, a sleazy man named Tyler (David English) who has recently been released from prison. Images and recollections of Tyler haunt Kayla throughout the film, and the constantly intruding presence of her past trauma was deeply engaging. I ultimately found myself wishing that this plot point had been developed more fully.
While the four leads remain rather unconvincing throughout the film, Sacrilege does feature some good performances from actors in smaller roles. Coronation Street alumnus Ian Champion is delightfully sinister as cult leader Fr Saxon, while Emma Spurgin Hussey delivers an unsettling performance as Mrs March. Rory Wilton as the mute groundskeeper is a consistently imposing presence.
In the end, Sacrilege is an uneven film. Impressive performances from the side characters are often outweighed by the unconvincing deliveries of the lead actors. Attempts at nuance are regularly interrupted by formulaic plot points and a heavy reliance on depthless folk horror iconography. Yet, for all that, Sacrilege is a film with promise. There interesting concepts, original ideas and beautiful shots scattered throughout the movie. Given time and a larger budget, writer-director David Creed will undoubtedly surpass this debut feature. The film’s essential structure and the breath-taking beauty of its landscape shots indicate a wealth of talent that hasn’t yet had time to blossom. I’m excited to see what Creed and his crew (particularly Smither) do next.
Sacrilege will be released on DVD in the USA and Canada on March 16th, followed by a full VOD release.
Adam Scovell, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Auteur, 2017.