The Five Best Folk Horror films

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by | Aug 5, 2022 | Film & TV

There's something creepy in the woods

What is Folk Horror?

Folk Horror is basically a sub-genre of horror, the films that are gathered into its purvue all deal with witchcraft and paganism, or rather they play on the establishments fear and distrust of them. They are more often than not set in rural locations and often prey upon the urban dwellers fear and distrust of country types.

The Unholy Triad

There are three definitive movies that are always referenced in this context; Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Indeed the first reference to the term was made in an interview with Piers Haggard, the director of Blood on Satan’s Claw,  where he said he ‘was trying to make a folk horror film’. The term stuck and has been applied to many films and TV programmes that dissect societies fear and fascination with the occult. There is also an argument that they demonstrate (albeit in a twisted manner) the ‘back to nature’ compulsion that was being felt through the middle decades of the 20th Century, as a result of creeping suburbanisation and the growth of urban living.

So let’s look at these three movies first

Witchfinder General

Made in 1968, the film was directed by Michael Reeves and adapted from a novel by Ronal Bassett. Set during the English Civil War when England was riven with political and religious instability. It starred Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins who seized the opprtunity to appoint himself a ‘witchfinder’ and embarked on a reign of terror across East Anglia. The Church eagerly promoted satan’s unceasing desire to corrupt souls as a way of keeping the faithful in line, Hopkins used fear as a tool to cheat villages out of large sums of money to root out supposed witches. The film has a creeping sense of fear, not from any real witches or their influence, but rather from the power of accusation and  the impossibility of proving innocence from trumped up charges.

Blood On Satan’s Claw

We are in 18th Century England, a mysterious skull with dark powers in unearthed during ploughing in a rural village. Made in 1970 and directed by Piers Haggard, the film depicts the ensuing demonic madness that engulfs the vilagers. Unlike Witchfinder general the powers of the Devil are very real in this film.

The Wicker Man

Hailed as one of the best British horror films ever, The Wicker Man wonderfully subverts expectations by having the virginal ritual sacrifice be a man. Played excellently by Edward Woodward, the protagonist slowly has his values, morals and very grip on reality challenged and destroyed. The cult leader is magnetically played by Christopher Lee, and the denoument still shocks to this day. of the three films this one holds up the best to the modern day. It also has a cracking score.

The VVitch

Made in 2015 by Robert Eggers, The Witch is set in New England in the 1630s, a time of puritanical religious obsession and fervour. The first settlers in a new land – or should we more accurately say the first wave of invaders who waged genocide upon the indiginous population – are busy staking a claim in their ‘god given’ land. But they bring their god and devil with them, and this film explores a world where their fears are all too real. Thje devil incarnate within a goat, witches flying at night, abducted infants… it’s all here. Except a god, the one thing they obsess over and yearn for never steps up to save them.

Eggers approach was to be as accurate to the period as possible, so the language, lighting and locations are all spot on.

A Field in England

A black and white gem from 2013, again set in the English Civil War. Made by Ben Wheatley who has channeled the disguieting elements of folk-horror into many of his films. A Field in England is a trippy descent into psychological horror and mysticism, time and space warping around the protagonists and the viewer is left discombobulated. In a sense this film distills and refines every element of those 60’s and 70′ three folk horror classics, the result is a film that intrigues and confounds the mind. One that’s talked about and has theories formed around it. It’s rather like a dream, you can try and analyse it as much as you like, but it’s power ultimately resides in its dream like state of familiarity fused with the utterly alien.

Yes, we’ve missed loads out, but who says we’re finished…

The BFI have a good article on Folk Horror here

Written by Iain Hazlewood

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