Packed with disturbing tales of folklore and haunting rural landscapes, ‘folk horror’ is one of horror’s most curious sub-genres. It is often associated with British horror of the 1960s and 1970s. These films used the British countryside, its people and their traditions to weave dark tales of wicked witchfinders and evil ancient rites. In recent years the genre has seen a bit of a revival thanks to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Robert Egger’s The Witch and recent backpacking horror hit The Ritual.
The latest film to ride this evil wave is Richard Rowntree’s directorial debut Dogged, a disturbing folk horror that taps into our primal fear of what lurks in the woods. When ten-year-old Megan meets a grizzly and untimely end, the film’s protagonist Sam returns to the remote tidal island where he grew up to attend the funeral. A testing relationship with his parents, a reunion with his estranged girlfriend, and a cryptic message from the island’s doctor force Sam to investigate the events leading to Megan’s tragic death. But truth is far more shocking than Sam wants to acknowledge. As his life begins to spiral into a macabre paranoid descent Sam must race against tide and time to expose the seedy underbelly of the island, and to save the lives of the ones he loves.
To celebrate the DVD release of Dogged on 9 July, we take a look back at some of the best folk horror films from around the world. Come, it is time to keep your appointment…
For his silent era film Benjamin Christensen studied medieval witch-hunting texts such as the Malleus Maleficarum to to create his mesmerising documentary about witchcraft. Häxan existed long before ‘horror’ was recognised as a movie genre but it still conjures much of the fantastic, folkloric imagery that we would associate with modern day folk horror. The film is at its haunting best during the many dramatised scenes of medieval witches brewing or riding broomsticks, crafted with ingenious early special effects. Christensen’s near-two-hour epic cost 2 million Swedish Kronor, making it the most expensive Scandinavian film of the silent era. Now, nearly 100 years old, the film is rightly regarded as a classic of cinema.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964)
Of the many sub-genres that folk horror crosses over with, gothic horror is probably the most common. Antonio Margheriti’s atmospheric medieval chiller stars 1960s horror darling Barbara Steele as a vengeful ghost who is brutally put to death by a tyrannical Baron. The Long Hair of Death’s macabre final scene strongly foreshadows a certain film starring Christopher Lee (which we’ll come to later) when the Baron’s subjects burn a ghoulish effigy, unaware that the Baron has been placed there as punishment for his wicked crimes. No horror films list should be complete without a little something from Italy.
THE WITCHES (1966)
With movies like The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Wake Wood (2010), Hammer Films has flirted with folk horror a number of times over its long history. But perhaps the most striking of these films is The Witches, one of a few films from Hammer that focused on the rural English occult. Starring former Hollywood superstar Joan Fontaine (sister of Olivia de Havilland) and with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale, The Witches has a high pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera. The film has similarities with other Hammer films of the late 1960s, however the creeping realisation that the villagers of the sleepy English town are invested in black magic and human sacrifice gives the film more of a folk horror feel than that conjured by the global Satanic cult in The Devil Rides Out, which was released two years later.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
Now we come to the first of the three films that form the chilling core of folk horror, Witchfinder General. Michael Reeves’ worthy cult classic stars the legendary Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the historical ‘Witch Finder General’, supposedly appointed by parliament to hunt out witches during the English Civil War. The film follows Hopkins as he murders and pillages throughout the land, and features many graphic scenes of on-screen torture that led to it being heavily censored the British Board of Film Censors. Witchfinder General also features one of horror’s best soundtracks, by Paul Ferris, so if you’ve never seen the film it should go straight to the top of your ‘must see’ list. Sadly the talented director Reeves died at the young age of 25 from an accidental overdose.
THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971)
Piers Haggards’ The Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in the 18th century and tells the story of an English village overrun by demonic possession and occult forces. Drawing on the ‘evil children’ template set by Village of the Damned, the adolescents of the village soon succumb to the devil who makes them do wicked things to other locals and anyone who betrays their new demonic cult. The Blood on Satan’s Claw was produced by Tigon Productions who initially wanted it to take place in the Victorian era but the setting was moved to the 18th century to give it a similar feel to Tigon’s previous folk horror hit Witchfinder General. The film stars Patrick Wymark in his final English language role, after it was passed up by two British horror legends: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
THE WICKER MAN (1973)
If there is a holy (or unholy) grail of folk horror, then it is surely Robin Hardy’s horror masterpiece The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward stars as the pious Sergeant Neil Howie, a policeman who travels to the outlying Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the supposed disappearance of a young girl. Upon his arrival he encounters a strange community of people including the promiscuous ‘landlord’s daughter’ played by Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee as the island’s charismatic leader Lord Summerisle. The film’s menacing atmosphere is created by drawing on pagan and folk horror traditions such as mayday celebrations and songs like ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’, a mid-13th century ditty that is sung by the villagers as the film reaches its disturbing climax. Iconic.
THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)
Folk horror is often drawn from fairytales, and one of the very best films to do this is Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, adapted from Angela Carter’s short story of the same name. The film blends gothic fantasy and Charles Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood to create one of British cinema’s most visually dazzling films. Due to the films limited budget (and to preserve the safety of the cast and crew) most of the wolves that appear in the film are actually Belgian Shepherds, whose fur had been specially dyed. However, one or two real wolves did make it into the film, and Jordan has since noted the bravery of the fourteen-year-old actor Sarah Patterson during these scenes. A dreamlike and mesmerising movie.