The countryside, cults and the occasional demonic goat. The sub-genre of folk horror extols and explores all the dark, dreamy and often macabre elements of the folk sort.
A term first coined by Piers Haggard (director of ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’) and later popularised by Mark Gatiss in the BBC documentary A History of Horror, folk horror is built upon a feeling of isolation and paranoia as thick as the fog that shrouds the haunted landscapes of its setting.
Bleeding into the early 70s from the heady highs of the late 1960s, the genre found its roots in the now infamous ‘Unholy Trilogy’: Haggard’s ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (1971), ‘The Witchfinder General’ (1968) by Michael Reeves and ‘The Wickerman’ (1973) by Robin Hardy. This trifecta of films defined a generation of horror obsessed with the unflinching wilderness both within and around us.
Set in the cultivated English countryside, these films focus on folk’s association with land and nature, tribe and ritual. They were unnerving because they were about things that should have died long ago; traditions deemed too archaic to survive, ways of life that simultaneously terrify and entice.
After falling out of fashion in the 80s and 90s, folk horror has seen something of a renaissance in the past decade. A new wave of talent are harnessing the core elements of folk horror and combining them with the anxieties of modernity. Here are five ‘newish’ movies that successfully showcase the genre’s revival.
5) Kill List (2011)
This hauntingly macabre piece from director Ben Wheatley finds its domestic wilderness not in the landscape but in the dialogue. In the opening sequence, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Kill List’ a post-Iraq gangster movie as ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) teams up with old army friend Gal (Michael Smiley) to carry out an assassination assignment with the promise of a lucrative payout.
However, after a number of progressively violent killings and the deterioration of the protagonist’s mental state, the ending turns out to be something quite different. It’s hard to say much about the film without giving away its secrets, which should be closely guarded in order for the movie to maintain its potency. However, the movie is a perfect example of the pervasive themes of systematic oppression that run through the veins of folk horror.
4) A Field in England (2013)
Another disorienting turn from Wheatley, ‘A Field in England’ is a subversive, mind-bending assault on the senses that leaves you utterly dumbfounded from beginning to end. The film follows a group of 17th century Civil War deserters ambushed by a mysterious alchemist and put to work in a field in the search for hidden treasure.
The field itself acts as a secondary protagonist and seeks to expose its inhabitants to the elements as they descend into madness. A cynical and despondent portrayal of the English Civil war, the film focuses on the folk elements of nature vs man as the ever encroaching wilderness slowly takes hold.
3) The Witch (2016)
Doubling down on the gritty realism of frontier life, ‘The Witch’ (Robert Eggers) is a saturated sponge of paranoia and folkloric horror. A classic folk horror tale that sees a puritanical 17th century family exiled from their community and forced to build a new life as outsiders, all the while seemingly terrorized by a witch who steals away their children. The film plays out as an exploration of the family’s darkest secrets told through their twisted belief in the folklore that haunts them. In true folk fashion, ‘The Witch’ consistently captures the folk horror preoccupation with the dark forces within us.
2) Get Out (2017)
On the surface of it, Jordan Peele’s social commentary horror may seem like a strange addition to the folk horror canon. Nevertheless, a brief glance at the plot tells you all you need to know; the arrival of an outsider, discovery of a secret cult, rituals and sacrifice. The uncanny nature of the locals, the unnerving sense of community and the customs that soon prove to be insidious build a narrative that would be well placed in any folk horror anthology.
1) It Comes at Night (2017)
Less horror, more claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic thriller, ‘It Comes at Night’ is the most recent helping of folk-inspired thrills from rookie director Trey Edward Shults. The scares come from a fear of the unknown and a threat that is never revealed. What makes the film so intriguing is not the mystery contagion that wipes out most of civilisation, nor the creepy Blair Witch-esque woods hiding a plethora of dangers.
Instead the film finds its intrigue in the interplay between the two families, who eventually find themselves quarantined in the cabin in the woods.