So what actually is Folk Horror?
In times of national – and international – uncertainty we often turn to genre fiction for escapism and entertainment. This has been borne out throughout the Twentieth Century. Vicious new methods of killing devised during the First World War and, coupled with improvements in healthcare, meant that what soldiers were left returned home disfigured, mutilated, damaged both internally and externally. How was this reflected in popular culture? A new wave of horror films, led by Lon Chaney and taken over by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, of monsters terrifying and eliciting sympathy in equal measure
The end of the Second World War led to similar events with the birth of the most cynical, tough genre of all, Film Noir. Alongside the birth of the paperback original novel (most popular genre – crime), cinematic wise guys, losers and femme fatales enjoyed their heyday until the Fifties emerged where the combination of Red Scares and fears of nuclear annihilation led to movies and literature based around massive, rampaging child of the atom mutations and body snatchers taking over our identities.
And so it continued. Yes, musicals often emerged to dance our cares away, most notably after 9/11 when Chicago won the Best Picture Oscar. But the go to response, both historically and in the present, is to understand what’s going on, you’ve got to go dark.
Hence the rise in popularity of Folk Horror. So what actually is Folk Horror? Well, for those who have been living on Mars or watching old Gene Kelly movies, Folk Horror as it’s currently understood takes as the unholy trinity of late-Sixties – early-Seventies movies Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man as sacred texts and moves outwards from there. They’re perfect for our society at the moment. They’re nostalgic in and of themselves but not for a bucolic rural Britain. They all show how scared communities unsure of their place in the world can be easily taken over by silver-tongued and gimlet-eyed demagogues, how fear of change brings about a relatable on old ways, old evils. As such, Folk Horror is the perfect metaphor for Brexit Britain.
The other main thing about Folk Horror is that it’s most definitely rural. As urbanites find themselves increasingly priced out of city living and start moving further and further out into the country, they inevitably find themselves looking towards the country to live in. And of course, they aren’t always welcome there. Arrogant city dwellers thinking they know best, trying to patronise their new rural neighbours . . . Never ends well, does it? Seeing the countryside as a playground raster than a workplace, and dwindling rural occupations as quaint rather than necessary, its clear why there is so much animosity towards outsiders. The metropolitan elite up against the angry, Brexit-loving-at-whatever-cost locals . . . a fertile ground for folk horror.
But there’s something else too. And this may be the most important thing of all. Folk Horror thrives in liminal spaces, in the gaps between worlds, in landscapes of rough earth and gnarled, old trees with humming pylons stretching overhead. In the half-imagined things glimpsed in wooded shadows out of the corners of eyes making hiking visitors quicken their step. In the feeling that no matter how alone one feels sitting by a lake or on a moor, one can’t shake the feeling of being watched, of being followed. Or walking through a picture postcard pretty village and noticing strange objects and fetishes hanging on all the front doors. Those liminal spaces are where Folk Horror breeds and spreads. Because in those speeches and those situations we’re left to confront unpleasant truths about ourselves. We’re not as clever as we think. Or as sophisticated. We’re not in control, we don’t know what we’re doing. And there’s something here with us. Something older than us, bigger than us, something barely glimpsed but definitely there. Our cities could fall tomorrow and it would still be there. It would still thrive. We might not. We are, collectively, scared of our urban future so we look towards our rural past. And our rural past stares back at us. With a cold, unblinking, inhuman eye.
So with all that in mind, here are my top five favourite Folk Horror films. Happy viewing …
5. Kill List. Most people in mentioning folk horror cinema delve into the past. So why is such a relatively recent film on this list? Because it belongs here. Ben Wheatley’s done everything from Doctor Who to JG Ballard to Hollywood shoot ‘em ups. He’s never made the same film twice but its always recognisably his own work. And this is no exception.
Two hit men are given a job to do. OK, fairly standard stuff so far. But then things start to become uneasy. Strange symbols appear. Victims seem particularly grateful to be killed, thanking their murderers. There seems to be a conspiracy going on, just out of shot (as the best conspiracies do), and our two hitmen are at the centre of it. And then there’s the ending.
This has polarised critics and viewers since it came out. There’s a genre switch so abrupt it makes your stomach lurch, like if Hemingway had started writing “The Killers” and Robert Aickman finished it. I’m not going to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but it involves nail-biting escapes, bloody pagan rituals and a final harrowing turn of the screw that I guarantee you will never have seen coming.
But what does it all mean? Let’s watch it again . . .
4. Night of the Demon “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” And with those six words the worlds of Kate Bush and M R James collide. I first came across this as a kid staying up late to watch the BBC2 horror double bills on summer Saturday nights. Even at such a young age I could tell a classic when I saw it. I didn’t know then that Jacques Tourneur had directed that great Film Noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum as well as the game changing Cat People for Val Lewton. Or that Peggy Cummins had given a definitive portrayal of psycho-sexual violent deviance in Gun Crazy. Or the classic MR James story it was based on. Or that Niall MacGinnis channelled Aleister Crowley for his performance as the villain Karswell, or that the decision to actually show the monster was a late one . . . I could go on. All I knew was that it freaked me out and I loved it.
As a portrayal of witchcraft in then modern Britain it was unique. Eschewing all the then fashionable trappings of gore and nineteenth century mittel-European settings that Hammer and its imitators were churning out, it coined fear and unease from such recognisable locations as the British Library, a children’s garden party, railway tracks and of course those afore-mentioned trees. This was a world the audience could recognise and anything, even a piece of paper – especially a piece of paper! – , could become an object of terror. By the time we get to Stonehenge, Dana Andrews’ rationalist Holden realises his quest to debunk Karswell isn’t going to work, and evil both ancient and modern is to be unleashed, British horror cinema would never be the same again.
3. The Wicker Man And now we get to the big three. The unholy trinity. The films that no list could leave out. Readers can disagree with the order I’ve placed them in, I don’t mind. But they can’t argue with the fact that they should be here. They have to be here. It’s the law. Folk lore. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
We all know the story by now. Christian copper Edward Woodward is lured to a remote Scottish island, ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of a child, but in reality to be the meat in a blazing wicker man sacrificial sandwich. So why do we still talk about this film? Because it’s still prescient. An island community, cut off from the mainland, is dictated to by a charismatic charlatan who believes that it can only thrive by desperately reverting to its past ways. Yes, that’s Brexit for you. It’s also the plot of The Wicker Man.
To say that it’s different to other horror films is putting it mildly. It’s a musical for one thing, it has Christopher Lee in drag and in the restored version it has scenes of actual sex. Between snails, admittedly, but still. You never see that kind of thing in Hammer movies. Or many movies for that matter. And it’s the grand daddy of folk horror movies. That is, apart from . . .
2. Witchfinder General Now we’re getting there. Vincent Price’s finest hours and a half. And made even all the more impressive because it’s most un-Vincent-Price-like performance ever. The on set battles between Price and the tragically short-lived director Michael Reeves are well-documented. That creative tension led to one of the most memorable of British films. Ostensibly a revenge Western with Roundhead Ian Ogilvy in the John Wayne part as Richard Marshall, and East Anglia filling in for John Ford’s Monument Valley, this cheap exploitation flick for Tony Tensor is elevated by Paul Ferris’s great knowing-variation-on-Greensleeves score, John Coquillon’s cinematography and Reeves’ and Tom Baker’s (no, not that one) script. With scenes of torture and violence that were for the time extremely shocking, the story follows arch hypocrite and Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (Price, of course) as he works his way through the county exercising the power of life and death over anyone he fancied. Sometimes literally.
It’s an angry film, the viewer empathizing with Marshall as his righteous rage takes him to a final confrontation with Hopkins that threatens to lose all sympathy as he spirals out of control, mutilating Hopkin’s body with an axe. The most memorable moment (of many) is also in this scene following an unknown soldier shooting Hopkins dead before Marshall can kill him. The film ends on a truly bleak note with him screaming “You took him from me!” over and over as his lover, Sara, the object of Hopkins’ obsessive lust, shrieks, having herself tipped over into madness. You never got that from a John Ford movie.
1. The Blood on Satan’s Claw And here we are. Number one, and it’s no surprise to anyone. Or shouldn’t be. In my opinion probably the finest British horror movie of all time. In fact, the quintessential British horror movie.
Taking as its starting point the then current Manson Family murders and the case of the Newcastle-based child killer Mary Bell, writer Robert Wynne-Simmons and director Piers Haggard transposed the action to the early eighteenth century and centred it around a deformed skull found while ploughing a field. The skull belongs to an ancient demon and infects the locals with its supernatural power, especially the teenagers who grow patches of fur on their bodies, become murderous and, in one famously harrowing sequence, commit rape. Patrick Wymark, in his final English language film, plays the judge who eventually defeats the ancient demon, emblematic supposedly of the enlightenment disposing of the old religions.
The film wasn’t a success on its initial release but has gone on, through late night TV screenings, DVD releases and word of mouth, to become one of the biggest cult films of all time. It also has – in common with the two previous films in this list – the most wonderful, evocative soundtrack courtesy of composer Marc Wilkinson.
It’s a massively ambitious film, belying its cheap, commercial exploitative roots, becoming something truly genres defining in the process. Folk Horror as a genre would not be what it is without it. British cinema in general would be all the poorer for it.
Martyn Waites was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. He trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and worked as an actor for many years before becoming a writer. His novels include the critically acclaimed Joe Donovan series, set in the northeast of England, and The White Room, which was a London Guardian book of the year. In 2013, he was chosen to write Angel of Death, the official sequel to Susan Hill’s Woman in Black, and in 2014 won the Grand Prix du Roman Noir for Born under Punches. He has been nominated for every major British crime-fiction award and has also enjoyed international commercial success with eight novels written under the name Tania Carver. His new thriller, THE OLD RELIGION, will release for the first time in the United States, in February 2020, from Blackstone Publishing.