“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.” May Morrison – The Wicker Man
In the past number of years one old subgenre of horror movies has seen a well deserved revival: folk horror. Those movies, as the name suggests are works based on folklore. Sometimes real, sometimes based on fictional tales, but all done with a claustrophobic sense of creepiness. This revival is heralded by a new generation of filmmakers who have been influenced strongly by the once popular 60’s and 70’s movement. Examples of this ‘new breed’ include director Ari Aster with his unhinged Midsommar (2019), and Robert Eggers’ supernatural-tinged The Witch (2015) which identifies strongly, and keeps in line, with the integral elements of the once dominant genre of folk horror.
To understand the genre further, it is best to look back at some key entries, many of which are visually stunning. There are a number of attributes that make a film into a traditional folk horror outing. Folk horror movies are usually set in remote locations, and almost always someone is going to become a ritual sacrifice to appease some Pagan god. But what is often forgotten is the soundtracks. At the time of these movies’ popularity, the folk revival in music intertwined with their onscreen cousins, creating a more immersive experience. The following are five doorways into what is known as folk horror, all with a unique quality to their storytelling.
Witchfinder General (1968)
This is in many ways ‘ground zero’ for folk horror. Since its release it has gained a worthy cult-status. Unlike many other exemplars, this movie does not contain any supernatural elements. Instead the evil is found in the form of humanity in the throes of power. Witchfinder General follows the exploits of Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) who is empowered as a ‘witch-finder’ to travel from village to village with his henchmen and torture confessions from young women.
As the young women falsely confess to witchcraft, they are then executed and Hopkins receives his payment from local magistrates. All goes his way until he encounters Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), and the feature becomes a tale of good versus evil under the guise of revenge. There is another layer of tragedy to Witchfinder General as director Michael Reeves tragically died of an accidental overdose shortly after completing the film.
Robin Redbreast (1970)
If ever something screamed ‘underappreciated’ this is it, and has floated under the radar for far too long. Created for television as part of the Play For Today series, Robin Redbreast examines how paganism exists in modern culture. We follow Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) as she leaves London for more rural settings in Southern England. Here she falls for and becomes pregnant by local karate enthusiast/pest exterminator Rob (Andrew Bradford). Things take a turn after she travels back to London for an abortion which she cancels, and instead returns to her rural cottage only to find herself the victim of a ‘cut off’ conspiracy. Worst is to come when she learns of the sacrificial price that someone must pay. Robin Redbreast is stylish, influential, steeped in traditional eeriness and symbolism.
As no trailer can be found for Robin Redbreast, here is the writer John Bowen talking about the movie. The full movie exists on YouTube.
The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)
A slightly unnerving, and heavy-laden supernatural outing by Piers Haggard (The Shell Seekers) that has the feel of an adaptation in the same universe as Witchfinder General. The Blood On Satan’s Claw finds a small 17th-century community falling under the spell of Satan after a disfigured skull and claw are found by a young man when ploughing a field.
Soon, anyone that comes in contact with the devilish remains becomes ‘possessed,’ losing all sense of morals, and in some respects their minds. A judge (Patrick Wymark) is dispatched to investigate and his skepticism is challenged, especially when a patch of ‘Satan’s skin’ has to be removed from a woman’s thigh in a particularly gruesome scene. Overall, and particularly for a film of its age, it still has the power to stay with the viewer long after the credits.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Not the Nic Cage remake from 2006 (avoid at all costs), this is the original from 1973, and it is still celebrated and disturbing 48 years later. Starring the late Edward Woodward as the God-fearing police sergeant Sergeant Neil Howie, who gets sent to an island off the Scottish coast to investigate the apparent disappearance of a young girl (Rowan Morrison). On arrival his beliefs and morals are twisted sideways with the pagan rituals on display (including open air copulation) and happening all around him.
Not noticing the ‘red flags’ coming from the creepy Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and a failed naked seduction by Britt Eckland (body double used), the ill-fated Howie remains until the bitter, grizzly end. Realising all too late that the disappeared young girl was not the target for the Summerisle’s ritual sacrifice. And so the movie ends on one of the most iconic scenes in cinema.
The Lair Of The White Worm (1988)
Skipping into a new decade, and directed by the sadly missed Ken Russell (The Commitments), this movie is equally clever, thought-provoking and completely bonkers. Based loosely on the 1911 Bram Stoker novel of the same name, there is a lot to unpack from The Lair Of The White Worm. It is a gothic tale starting with an archeologist (Peter Capaldi) recovering the head of a giant snake, from there it moves to an investigation into a cavern (lair), and the instruction of Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) and an ‘Addams Family’ throwaway in Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe). Yes, The Lair Of The White Worm has a decent amount of shocks, and it is a little predictable, there is also a fun element to it. Ultimately it is a story of folk legend told in only the way Ken Russell could.
There are some American folk horror movies that shouldn’t be forgotten, such as Stephen King’s Children Of The Corn (1984), and Deliverance (1973). More recently The Blair Witch Project (1999) expanded on the subject of folk meets horror. However ‘ye Olde English’ tales of legend appear to form the basis for the best early examples of the style.