The term ‘popular horror’ was first used by Piers Haggard to describe his classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Mark Gatiss then used it in his documentary A horror story to refer to a series of British horror films from the 1970s. These films have since become affectionately known as the “unholy trilogy” of popular horror: The wicker man, Witch Seeker General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. The subgenre was formed in hindsight, not truly recognized until a modern revival brought the themes of cults, isolation, landscape, and popular beliefs to modern audiences. For those curious about the subgenre, here are some must-see movies that offer a broad insight into the world of folk horror.
Midsommar reunited director Ari Aster with Florence Pugh
Following the death of her parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) travels with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and a group of friends to Sweden. Traveling to a remote Swedish village to attend a Midsummer celebration, the group quickly become entangled in the sectarian community before meeting a gruesome end. Directed by Ari Aster, 2019 Midsommar was distributed by folk horror powerhouse A24 and arguably kickstarted the revival of modern folk horror. Drawing inspiration from Swedish folklore, Aster subverts many classic horror tropes while paying homage to previous folk horror movies. Perfectly balancing drama with horror, the moments of dread really catch the audience off guard, and the gore is always surprising.
The Wicker Man, the 1973 British classic starring Christopher Lee
The paradigm of the genre, Robin Hardy’s classic, The wicker man, terrified audiences in 1973 and still influences movies to this day. Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to Summerisle, a remote Scottish island, to investigate a missing girl. Upon arrival, he finds the townspeople preparing for a May Day celebration under the watchful eye of the sinister Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). As Howie investigates, he discovers that the islanders have embraced a form of paganism that unsettles the devout Catholic Howie. Hardy horrifically interprets British folklore, taking many scenes from James Frazer’s account of European folk tradition, The golden branch. A disturbing scene from May Pole and a fire dance sequence have become so typical of folk horror that reinterpretations can be seen throughout the genre, especially in Midsommar. Paul Giovanni’s score is a particular highlight, masterfully combining traditional tunes with contemporary folk music.
Netflix’s Apostle starred Dan Stevens and a creepy Micheal Sheen
Traveling to a small community on a remote Welsh island, Apostle centers on Thomas (Dan Stevens) searching for his missing sister, who has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom by the islanders. Thomas infiltrates the community posing as a convert, where he meets the enigmatic leader, Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen). Malcolm informs Thomas of the cult’s belief that their land has been made fertile for agriculture through blood sacrifice, giving Sheen the opportunity to portray a truly unsettling character. A slow-burning atmospheric film, Apostle effectively cultivates its tone, building its tension exponentially. Playing with the genre themes of paganism and Christianity vying for cultural dominance and belief in a “harvest spirit”, Gareth Evans’ 2018 period horror play is a necessary inclusion in folk horror studies .
Estonian fairy tales turned gruesome and beautiful in November
Based on a compilation of Estonian folk tales, Rainer Sarnet’s 2017 masterpiece illustrates the connection between folk tales and folk horror. Indeed, some have already noted that a prevalent tone in folk horror films is that of a sinister fairy tale. Combined with the black and white visuals, some aided by the brutal use of infrared cameras, November employs a magical tone that is as beautiful as it is unnerving. Set in a 19th-century Estonian peasant village, the plot centers on young Hans, who, despite being engaged to Liina, falls madly in love with the local landowner’s daughter. As Liina turns to witchcraft to reclaim her love, their fellow citizens are faced with the return of the dead on All Saints’ Day, an infestation of plague warded off by placing their pants over their heads, and kratts, which are mythical servants made of bones and abandoned machines.
Häxan has provided 100 years of witchcraft and folk horror
The 1922 Swedish documentary about witchcraft has been a cult horror classic for years. Since the recent revival of folk horror, many now consider haxan the first film of the subgenre. Released in 1922 as a cinematic essay, haxan was written and directed by Benjamin Christensen to depict the history of witchcraft from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Using a combination of historical sources in a documentary style and narrative dramatizations, Christensen’s film has inadvertently become a staple for horror movie fans thanks to its highly unnerving visuals and chiaroscuro style. The whole effect is compounded by the aging of the film, which only adds to its otherworldly character. Depict action scenes straight from a medieval witch hunt guide, watch haxan with Modern Eyes really highlights the connection between folk horror and historical folk belief.
A Field in England is Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic trip down memory lane
Fleeing battle during the 17th century English Civil War, four men venture into the English countryside in search of freedom and a tavern. After stumbling upon a treasure trove of magic mushrooms, the men are soon captured by a sinister alchemist (Michael Smiley), who believes a great treasure is buried beneath the field. Directed by Ben Wheatley (Tourists), 2013 A field in England is a psychedelic ride that challenges its viewers with intricate visuals and a rich, oppressive score. One particularly nerve-wracking scene depicts an elated Reece Shearsmith emerging from a tent under the Alchemist’s control. Making full use of the use of black and white visuals, the scene manages to be horrifying in performance and style alone. Highly intricate and multi-layered, Wheatley’s masterpiece is a must-see.
The Witch was Robert Eggers’ first historical horror film
Robert Eggers quickly became one of the most beloved directors of the folk horror genre. Eggers’ work includes Lighthouse and the recent The man from the northwhich saw him reunite with the star of his 2015 hit The witch. After her family is banished to a New England colony, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family relocate to the edge of an eerie forest. Following the disappearance of her youngest brother, Thomasin’s family believe that a witch resides in the woods and targets the family. Slowly, the family begins to crumble as tragedy follows tragedy, all under the watchful eye of the family’s hell goat, Black Phillip. Eggers uses a tone that is as gradual as it is shocking, with a muted color palette and a focus on historical accuracy that would continue throughout Eggers’ career. The witch not only demonstrates the early days of Eggers’ work, but also set the tone that most modern folk horror films adhere to.