Where do we begin when thinking about folk horror, a sub-genre that escapes any coherent definition? We know that it exists in our subconscious as it evokes the fears that hide deep in our minds. It highlights that feeling of being watched as we go about our lives, the idea that we may not be in control of our lives, and the desire to return to ‘safer’ traditions instead of facing the discomforts of modernity. The horror in folk horror can stem from pagan faith rituals and cults or a character’s isolation in the countryside that leads to madness and immortality.
How do we get into folk horror without any generic labelling? If we can’t scroll through Netflix and pick one out at sight how do we begin? As a champion of the genre, it’s my role to guide you from the familiar to the unknown. Here are my recommendations, best watched with the lights turned off.
Unless you’ve been living under a large rock you’ve heard of Midsommar. At the very least you’ve seen a film student wearing sandals, a white dress and a bouquet of flowers on their head. The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh), a traumatised psychology student, and her toxic partner Christian (Jack Reynor) as they attend a midsummer celebration at a friend’s ancestral commune. In a subversion of the genre, the characters’ descent into madness plays out in the bright Swedish sun. The horror is out in the blazing sun which means you cannot avert your eyes as Pawel Pogorzelsk gorgeously captures a film that will shake you to your core. It continues to steer clear of so many horror genre tropes and clichés throughout, with Pugh’s central performance of astounding nuance being a particular highlight. Henrik Svensson’s production design draws you into the maddening world of Midsommar so when the visceral climax begins, you are tripping on the high of Ari Aster’s wonderfully deranged direction. This makes it one of the most immersive, intense and unique cinematic horrors in recent memory that is entirely worthy of the hype.
Kill List is the twice removed older cousin of Midsommar and to elaborate on that, it spoils the folk horror film I hold dearest to my heart. Kill List is the film that introduced me to the genre and is also a film I consider to be criminally underrated. The best way to watch this film is to go into it completely blind. Do this and you’ll be rewarded with a film that gets under your skin and lingers there long after the credits roll. The less said the better about Kill List, so I implore you to watch Ben Wheatly’s unsettling horror triumph right away. Just make sure to check your house for any strange symbols before you do and keep your loved ones close… or else.
The cult classic horror The Wicker Man is the O.G. as so many films can be traced back to it as a point of inspiration or reference. I’m talking about the 1973 Wicker Man here and not the god awful 2006 version that stars Nicolas Cage and the infamous line, “OH, NO, NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAAHHHHH!”. Our stern-faced protagonist is Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) who is sent to a remote Scottish island to investigate a report of a missing child. The film is a masterful exercise in dread and paranoia, and features a surprising sum of musical numbers. It also offers a rich commentary on paganism, catholicism, religious extremism, and sexual freedom. All of these elements make The Wicker Man quite possibly the finest folk-horror film made. With so many great horror films there exists an iconic villain, and this film is no exception. Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle and delivers an over-the-top performance that both charms and terrifies you. This performance places him in the canon of great horror villains. Where this film excels is in the compelling hierarchies of knowledge: you know that Sergeant Howie is doomed but director Robin Hardy shows remarkable restraint so his fate doesn’t become a matter of if or when, but how. This is where the palpable tension of The Wicker Man is found and what makes its grand finale so shocking in its simplicity. The film is nothing less than a masterpiece so make sure to watch it to “keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.”
Where would you go on holiday for some R&R? In The Ritual, their idea of a lads holiday isn’t Ibizia, Mykonos or Benidorm, but a hike through the beautifully serene and seemingly peaceful landscapes of Sweden dedicated to the loss of a friend. But when one of them injures themselves they decide to take a shortcut through the woods — and then things go awry. Unbeknownst to them, there is something or someone stalking them that elicits such a feeling of unease you’ll hide behind your blanket. Whilst The Ritual doesn’t break the mould, it does what it aims to do exceptionally well. The atmosphere of dread the woods establishes, intoxicates and lures you to wander into the deepest darkest corners, a metaphor for Luke’s (Rafe Spall) psyche which is plagued by guilt. When Luke’s trauma and guilt begins to manifest itself in group hauntings, which they dismiss as tricks of the mind, their toxic masculinity rears its ugly head. Thus, chaos sets in, which is all strikingly catalogued by Andrew Shulkind, who captures the deep dark night as a beast of its own. Although The Ritual isn’t the most inventive of folk-horror films, it’s a quick horror fix available on Netflix that won’t leave you disappointed.
Witchfinder General is the one to watch if your feening for some sleazy 70’s horror. However, beware of its brutal gore and toture. Vincent Price, the iconic horror actor, plays Matthew Hopkins, a famed English witch-hunter who was responsible for the deaths of over 300 women considered to be ‘witches.’ Under the direction of Michaell Reeves, in his last directorial feature before his passing at only 25, Price plays the part with such conviction you begin to hate the man and not the character. Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) plays a young roundhead who is wise to Hopkins’ unjust practices and sets out to seek revenge in the most savage of ways. This savagery highlights Witchfinder General as a grim, uncompromising vision of “weaponised belief” which ultimately led the film upon its release in 1968 to be censored extensively. It was also scorned by critics who called it “peculiarly nauseating” and a “sadistic extravaganza.” Such a strong reaction to a film makes it a necessary viewing. Is it not the point of art not to provoke a reaction, either negative or positive? Watch Witchfinder General to see if it is as discomforting now as it was then, or just simply watch to revel in the horror of unchecked, abusive power.