Thanks to Kier-la Janisse and her titan of a documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, the subgenre of folk horror is getting some time in the spotlight. Severin Films, which helped produce the movie, is marking the occasion with a 19-film, 12-disc boxed set of folk horror films. Meanwhile, Shudder has gathered a collection of 46 folk horror films, starting with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, and including 13 others from the Severin set. (The Shudder collection also includes the Haida cultural-preservation project Edge of the Knife, reviewed on HorrOrigins here).
You can't talk about "folk horror" for even five minutes before getting into taxonomic mania. What's in the category and what's out? Even experts have a hard time defining exactly what folk horror is, or whether it can even be called a subgenre. Early in the documentary, Adam Scovell (who wrote a book surveying this territory, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange) says, "Folk horror is based upon the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny." It’s a great phrase, capturing that impression of the extraordinary disturbing or invading our ordinary lives which is part of horror’s core appeal. But you could use the phrase to describe any horror film.
It’s true that, when you look at certain strings of films, like the “Unholy Trinity'' of Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973), it’s hard not to see a pattern: rural communities, the celebration and suppression of old traditions, the tension between the modern and the pre-modern, the potential for that tension to escalate and lead to grotesque violence. And maybe that’s the best way to look at “folk horror,” as a fresh angle through which to look at particular horror films and sort out the themes that speak to us and the components that thrill us. So the list that follows is presented in a spirit of “here’s one angle from which to look at folk horror,” rather than a spirit of “here’s what’s in and not out.”
Maya (Tara Basro) returns to her home village of Harjosari in hopes of finding an inheritance that might nudge her out of the daily grind, and instead finds a gruesome secret. Armed with a star turn from beauty Basro, writer-director Joko Anwar hits every note in the scale with this film, from the eerie to the disgusting and morally outrageous. He’s very much playing the folk horror classics: the village is secluded, the villagers have a secret, the girls from the city should run, and they do...but not soon enough. The original title, translated from Indonesian as Woman of the Damned Land, appropriately centers the landscape as the key feature here. “Psychogeography” is a helpful term for talking about folk horror, and this is a film where the violence and gore aren’t just graphic: they’re psychogeographic.
9. Dark August
Somewhere in 1970s small-town Vermont, Sal (J.J. Barry) is starting to feel as though he’d be better off back in the mean streets of NYC. A year after accidentally killing a little girl in a car accident, he still feels as though the girl’s grandfather has him in the crosshairs. But what is the exact nature of the old man’s revenge? If Sal can’t even understand it, how can he defend against it? The tension between the somewhat hard-bitten hero and his rural environment is depicted with welcome subtlety; what the film’s prologue makes grimly unsubtle is that he is the target of malevolence via folk magic. What makes this film stand out is the respectful way with which it treats modern Pagan practices. There's a great Tarot reading scene, and a climactic ritual laid out in a startlingly procedural way. It ends like they unexpectedly ran out of money and had to improvise, but otherwise this is a low-budget regional gem. The UK distributor Arrow Films recently rediscovered it for their set American Horror Project vol. 2. It’s currently streaming on Shudder.
Michael (Peter Ciella) has it pretty good in the city: he and his wife are preparing to have a baby and he’s gainfully employed. Then, as often happens in these kinds of stories, he gets an unusual summons to leave his circle of safety. An email from his old friend Chris (Vinny Curran) has a cryptic video attachment showing Chris smoking meth and losing his equilibrium. This clue that Chris’s story may be on a downward trajectory lures Michael to try and change the story’s ending. He ventures to the remote area where Chris has retreated, only to find Chris is squatting on tribal land (at least according to the intimidating landlord, played by Zahn McClarnon). The bigger problem has something to do with various artifacts of a storytelling process (an old library book, a phonograph, more cam footage) which mysteriously appear like bread crumbs for a trail that doesn’t lead home. The anthropological insight that storytelling is central to human existence is lurking somewhere in the mysterious root system of folk horror. This amiable two-hander sidles up to its scares crab-wise — it's more chill than chilling — but it takes certain folk-horror tropes (the odyssey from the city into the wilderness, the excavation of ominous ancient history) and turns them inside out in an unforgettable way.
7. The Shout
I was curious about this film when I first read about it as a kid. It didn't fit into any neat categories in my mind: the threat is not a vampire or a werewolf or any traditional monster. He doesn't even call himself a witch. His name is Crossley and he can kill with a scream, like a banshee. The stakes are very small (Crossley menaces the domestic happiness of a single young couple) but the movie is strangely compelling all the same. It's a story told by one outsider (the Polish director in de facto exile, Jerzy Skolimowski) about other outsiders (a worldly urban couple living in the English countryside and their disturbing interloper) for outsiders (as the dislocations of the 21st century have made most of us outsiders in our own neighborhoods and towns). You know how in American films, the go-to explanation for untoward phenomena is an "ancient Indian burial ground" somewhere in the mix? This movie has an Aboriginal shaman who taught the lethal "shout" of the title to Crossley. But what really makes it folk horror is its fascination with landscape. Eerie and impressive views of the north Devon coast are crucial to the narrative (particularly the rock formations at Berry Cliff). Also, next to Resolution, this is the most "meta" folk horror film of the pack, a story within a story, leaving you with more questions than answers.
6. The Village
Even if folk horror weren’t having a moment, I would recommend returning to this movie from the initial upward slope of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, when he could stud his casts with stars (Joaquin Phoenix is first among equals in a formidable ensemble here). I remember, as a horror fan, being so thrilled by Shyamalan telling an old-school story of scary monsters in the woods in a classic style, and then so frustrated when he turned it inside out. But the games Shyamalan plays with some very traditional folk-horror tropes (the insular community, rooted in the land, where "safety" is ambiguous) are elegant as well as playful — combined with his solemn, earnest approach to the love story, they make something special.
So many storytellers (and I'm thinking about the writers and directors of horror films in particular) only bring in a nice nuclear family of mom, dad and kid to set up a state of normal that can serve as a contrast to the nasty that will come later. Most of their energy and anticipation is invested in the "nasty" part and they think that everyone just knows what normal looks like, so they bluff their way shamelessly through the “nice” scenes. When writer/director Larry Fessenden introduces his mom, dad and kid family in Wendigo, he isn't bluffing. He seems to understand people in general, he seems to understand his characters in particular, and the actors are skillful and on board (the kid is played by Erik per Sullivan, Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle). We may feel some banality when an urban couple seeking a restful weekend in the country run afoul of sinister rural folk, but Fessenden draws out hidden tensions in the scenario. And for once, a white filmmaker drawing on Native American lore for his horror film shows some care and thoughtfulness. It feels of a whole with Fessenden's interest in how we use myths to cope with the contingency of life.
“Urban folk horror” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but really this hearkens back to one of the most wonderful folk horror traditions, that of the scholar studying folklore who expects the topic to stay at a respectful, intellectual distance and finds the folklore coming disturbingly close to home (cf: M.R. James). In this case it’s Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) on a quest for a graduate thesis on semiotics addressing urban legends, who ventures into the Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago and ends up being studied and dissected by the Candyman, the figure from folklore she went searching for. Now that we have the remake, it’s more important than ever to treasure the original in which one British fellow (Bernard Rose) adapted a story by another British fellow (Clive Barker), translating it into a peculiarly American vernacular with great finesse and reminding us that the UK is where folk horror really came into its own as a concept.
3. The VVitch
The compiling of this list at this time is ultimately attributable to Kier-la Janisse’s documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which partly owes its current existence to Robert Eggers. It was Eggers’ offhand remark about imagery of the hare and the jackrabbit in legends about witches that got Janisse thinking about the dramatic differences between the ways folk horror would manifest itself in North America as opposed to the United Kingdom. If Eggers was simply a thoughtful student of and commentator on folklore, it would be admirable but ultimately irrelevant; what matters for our purposes is that he made a deeply unsettling and intense film. Simply for the rigor with which it tries to create the impression of a distant, bygone time, and for the way it goes for the jugular with regard to misogyny, The Witch earns its reputation as an iconic film. Beyond that, its extraordinary box office success means its impact on the horror film marketplace is still being felt. Whatever great folk horror movies we’ve received since 2015, we owe at least a few of them to The Witch.
Ideally, a folk horror film will have an anthropological side and spend some time exploring customs and traditions otherwise opaque to the audience. With Midsommar, Ari Aster demonstrated this virtue in spades, yielding to some of his most fussy, detail-oriented, world-building impulses in the area of costume design and choreography. Since before The Wicker Man, it's been a common dynamic to oppose modern urban life, weak but rational, against a rural cult that is robust but sinister. Aster both plays off of that dynamic while exploiting it with a scalpel’s edge. Aster has not only mounted a critique of our society's irrational levels of detachment (tragedy captured in an unanswered email) but followed up by depicting the cult's practices with a level of detail and exuberance as to really help us feel like we're there.
1. A Dark Song
Sophia (Catherine Walker) has been nearly debilitated by a crippling loss. She might be through the worst of it, and in the aftermath, or she might still be in the middle of a collapse. Either way, her course of action has been to hire an occultist who calls himself Mr. Solomon (Steve Oram) to help her carry out a dangerous spell that'll take months to do, in an isolated house that she's rented for this purpose. If the spell is successful, it will grant each of them one wish. A Dark Song perfectly captures Scovell's principle of juxtaposing the prosaic with the uncanny, while going against the grain in a million ways. The gender dynamics, the sober treatment of magick, the emotional intensity...it's not just the craftsmanship of the movie, it's the way writer/director Liam Gavin brings something to the table that is distinctively his. He satisfies that distinctive and difficult hunger of horror film fans, namely, to see something that is unlike anything they’ve seen before while still providing the unsettling, eerie and terrifying qualities that make it recognizably a horror film.
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