Having proved a big hit on the film festival circuit Kier~La Janisse’s magnus opus is now available to buy. At over 3 hours long, Folk Horror Revival creator Andy Paciorek and Co-founder & project manager Darren Charles were honoured to be part of this fantastic, bewitching award- winning documentary which also features music by our esteemed colleagues Grey Malkin and film footage by John Chadwick. Nestled among a wealth of talent such as the directors Piers Haggard, Robert Eggers & Lawrence Gordon Clark, actors Alice Lowe and Ian Ogilvy, screenwriter Jeremy Dyson and a whole host of horror historians and revivalists including Gail-Nina Anderson, Mark Pilkington, Kat Ellinger, Lindsay Hallam, Ian Cooper and many, many more.
Covering folk horror from numerous different angles and locations across decades, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is not only one of the most thorough horror media documentaries across the board but specifically is a must-watch for all disciples of the old ways. Kier~La Janisse has poured heart and soul into this epic venture and has created a classic out of a cult. Highly recommended.
It is available to purchase as a stand alone Blu Ray or as part of the impressive Severin Films folk horror box set All the Haunts Be Ours which boasts 20 feature films – including a new 4K scan from the original negative of the long-unavailable EYES OF FIRE – over 70 bonus features, a soundtrack CD, a spoken word album of Arthur Machen’s THE WHITE PEOPLE read by Linda Hayden of Blood on Satan’s Claw with an original score by Timothy Fife, and a book introduced by Folk Horror Revival’s Andy Paciorek, and featuring new writing by Dawn Keetley, Sarah Chavez, Stephen Volk, Dejan Ognjanovic, Stephen Bissette, Mitch Horowitz, alongside archival pieces, all beautifully designed by Luke Insect.
Hurry though as the even more special special edition set The Witches Bundle which also featured a poster, Owl Service plate, Key-rings, an Oracle deck and other goodies has already sold out.
Though folk horror is often associated to Britain, in looking through the vast number of films, TV series, books and other media that dabble in these ways, it soon becomes very apparent that it is a global phenomenon and not a new one at that. The forerunner of horror story books and films are the folk and fairy tales told as entertainments on those cold evenings around fires. And not just as an entertainment but at times a warning of dangers; traditional precursors of the Public Information Films that stuck in the minds of the kids who managed to survive the perils of being electrocuted in pylon-frisbee combinations or locked away for an eternity inside a fly-tipped fridge. But the traditional tales and the folk horror they later spawned had cultural and geographic nuances that defined their style and identity. Sometimes the land itself tells the story.
In the Folk Horror Chain, an analysis of the elements that constitute folk horror devised by the author and academic Adam Scovell, he mentions two links of the chain that are pertinent to this essay. They are Landscape and Isolation. In consideration of Landscape, the most common environment to be found in many examples of folk horror is rural or at least semi-rural. There are however stories that feature elements of folk horror in more built up areas (which may fall under the mode of Urban Wyrd, which is not simply folk horror in an urban setting but the nuances of which are beyond this article) however here shall concentrate on the more traditional or rural settings. In considering Isolation we have to remember that whilst it may in some instances relate to being out in the wilderness alone, it could also relate to being culturally or socially isolated for instance being a stranger among strange folk.
Where better to start in looking at these factors than in Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic folk horror movie The Wicker Man? The harbingers of The Wicker Man that are the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner and the 1970 BBC Play For Today episode Robin Redbreast (directed by James McTaggart) both also followed the plight of a person away from their original home and now amongst folk with different ways to their own. Ritual followed a police officer, (not entirely unlike Sergeant Neil Howie the protagonist of The Wicker Man played by Edward Woodward) investigating a missing child case in a rural Cornish village whilst Robin Redbreast follows the situation of a woman (played by Anna Cropper), who in taking a break from London, rents a country cottage in a location that is not specifically identified but from the accents of the locals appears to also be in the southwest of England. In deciding that Ritual was too problematic to film and thus deciding to write a screenplay with a similar central theme, Robin Hardy and script-writer Anthony Schaffer decided to make the location of their tale more remote still than in Ritual and Robin Redbreast (it is not known if either Hardy or Schaffer had seen Robin Redbreast). Setting The Wicker Man on an island off the Scottish coast, they made Sergeant Howie’s eventual plight more difficult – he could not run away, back-up from other police could not rush instantly to his aid. The fictional isle of Summerisle is an oddity in itself, due to geographical conditions it is place known for its amazing fruit production, not something the Scottish islands of the north are usually widely acclaimed for. But Summerisle is not a wilderness, its inhabitants are not prehistoric troglodytes hiding in caves; it does have an archaic system of having a local Lord who is also the people’s leader, but it also has a post office, shops and a thriving business in the form of the export of its fruit, particularly apples. However, it is when the harvest fails and their livelihood is threatened that things begin to occur. The ways on the island are old ways resurrected (details of which were inspired by historically questionable but conceptually intriguing books such as The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion by Sir James George Frazer). Sergeant Howie finds himself isolated not only by being cut off from the mainland by a channel of seawater but alone among people whose beliefs are so alien to his own that he struggles to barely comprehend them. The local people’s association to the land, particularly the fertility of the land, shapes their entire lives and in ensuring the fecundity of the crops they will, with a disturbing glee, take any actions they deem necessary.
In other examples of British folk horror films of the era, time plays a part. Witchfinder General (1968), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) for instance are all set in centuries past in times where superstition, suspicion and fear spread across the country and continent like a virus. This was a time when it was feared that Satan was especially active in corrupting folk into worshipping him and employing malevolent actions against their neighbours or even against the crown or state. This was the time of Witch-hunting. Films of this kind were not hellbent on historical accuracy it must be said, and would not let facts get in the way of a good horror story. This is particularly noticeable in the movie Witchfinder General (directed by Michael Reeves). The historical time-period has been played with, as has the age, character and fate of Matthew Hopkins the titular Witchfinder General (played by Vincent Price). It does however illustrate the cruelty and injustice of the witch hunts that cut a swathe through the valleys, villages and burgeoning cities of Britain and beyond, and like The Wicker Man makes for an effective horror that has no actual supernatural happening in it. Cry of the Banshee and The Blood on Satan’s Claw however do unearth the demons from the forests, from the furrows and fields of olde England. The notion of superstition in small communities was returned to by Nigel Kneale with his 1975 TV play Against the Crowd: Murrain whereby the residents of a Yorkshire village fear that an elderly woman living in their midst is a witch intent on causing them and their animals harm. The premise of madness and maleficence within a meadow was beautifully returned to by Ben Wheatley in his strange 2013 film, A Field in England. Set during the 17th Century English Civil War, the film takes place within a single meadow, where the protagonists appear to be trapped. What transpires in the film is a medley of alchemy, intrigue and psychogenic mushroom hallucinations but in its poetic weaving it does reveal why folk horror is often associated to the British landscape as there are centuries of history and spilled blood within the soil of these small isles. However, the phenomenon of folk horror is not confined to these lands.
Crossing the ocean to the Americas, Europeans took their old fears to their new lives. The 1996 film The Crucible (directed by Nicholas Hytner and based upon the 1953 play by Arthur Miller) is based upon the real-life Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s whereby nineteen people lost their lives through the accusation that they were practising witchcraft. These events inspired a number of other movies including Crowhaven Farm (1970) and The Lords of Salem (2012). The 1973 Thomas Tryon novel Harvest Home and the television adaptation The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) follows a similar path between the plough-lines as The Wicker Man in depicting surviving old rites of sacrificial libation to the land. Children of the Corn (directed by Fritz Kiersch and based upon the Stephen King story of 1977) also tells of an archaic religion whereby an agricultural god named He Who Walks Behind The Rows must be appeased with blood sacrifice.
But the land itself is of gigantic proportions compared to Britain and the matter of geographic isolation increases in scope significantly. This is evident in the non-fictional but beautifully presented 1999 documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (directed by James Marsh) and the 1973 book it is based on by Michael Lesy which contains great old photography by Charles Van Schaick. Within its pages and on the screen are told tale after tale of madness, murder and misfortune mostly befalling European settlers struggling to cope with their new lives in the vast expanse of America. The theme of adaption to a hard, unforgiving land is displayed also in Robert Eggers’ 2015 folk horror masterpiece The VVitch. The film is inspired by both the lives and toils of the Plymouth Pilgrim Colony and accounts of witchcraft practice and history as described in accounts of period books and pamphlets inspired by tomes such as Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum – Hammer of the Witches (1487). Again, in The VVitch we see the desperation caused by the failing of crops.
But before the settlers colonised America the land was already old and walked upon. Indigenous American mythology like all world tales contains darker stories and entities. Though there have been numerous attempts to bring the stranger creatures of tribal mythology to screen such beings as skinwalkers, wendigos and the manitou, at times they have been not the most understanding or respectful of their source material. There is also the now stereotypical trope of ‘Indian burial grounds’, though that premise was used effectively in Stephen King’s 1983 book Pet Sematary and originally adapted for film in 1989 by Mary Lambert. This tale of resurrection beyond death contains the very folk horror line,” The ground is sour.” A lesser known film is 1983’s Eyes of Fire directed by Avery Crounse in which a scandalised preacher and his acolytes are forced out of their settlement and take shelter in a forest haunted by the spirits of long-deceased Indigenous Americans. There has been a growing wave of Native American film directors producing works in the horror genre, mostly so far it has been psychological horror that has been produced but it would be intriguing to see some of them bring their old tales of fear to the screen.
Although folk horror ‘purists’ may state that folk horror has to have a pagan or folkloric element, there isn’t actually a folk horror manifesto, (the term was originally utilised in reference to films by Piers Haggard when talking about The Blood on Satan’s Claw stated that his intention was to make a ‘folk horror film’), so it is mostly a matter of opinion. The Folk Horror Revival multimedia project prefers to take aesthetic, atmosphere and the elements of Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain into account as much as individual subject matter. Folk Horror Revival considers the subgenre of backwoods horror to often graze in a nearby field to folk horror. Bearing this in mind, the factors of landscape and isolation certainly play an important part in several American backwoods or ‘hillbilly’ horror movies. John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance follows the adventures of four friends who head out from Atlanta to a remote Georgia wilderness on a canoeing expedition. Their holiday turns sour as they encounter a pair of violent mountain dwellers. Equally notorious and often undeservedly maligned is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) which is not as gory as some people seem to remember but is just as disturbing. A group of teenagers set out on a road trip to visit the rural Texan farm of the deceased grandfather of a pair of them. Picking up a weird hitchhiker on the way was not the strangest or worst thing to befall them on their trip, it was merely the start. Falling into the clutches of a demented cannibalistic family a grim battle for survival begins. 1981’s Southern Comfort (directed by Walter Hill) follows a squad of nine National Guard soldiers on a routine training exercise in a Louisiana bayou. The atmospheric deep southern swamp provides a setting that in its landscape is itself another major character in the film. Stirring the wrath of local Cajun hunter-trappers, the soldiers find themselves out of their depth as one by one they are hunted down. Southern Comfort also belongs to the southern gothic subgenre, another form of art and fiction that relies heavily on place and the cultural character of the location.
The culture of Louisiana is distinct in having both French Creole and Afro-Caribbean influence as well as American. It is this combination that provides the backdrop of the development of Louisiana Voodoo as a folk religion and the source of inspiration for Alan Parker’s great 1987 movie, Angel Heart. Angel Heart is a southern gothic / neo-noir fusion that also bears relevance to the folk horror subgenre due to its folk religion as well as Satanic themes and the cultural isolation New York detective Harry Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) feels among unfamiliar people with unfamiliar ways in the New Orleans landscape.
Some other films are noteworthy bedfellows on the premises of landscape and / or especially isolation. Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971) is a deliciously twisted movie based upon Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil (a name later changed also to The Beguiled). Set during the American Civil War in 1863 the film portrays the fate of an injured Union soldier, John McBurney (played by Clint Eastwood) who finds himself and his wounds tended within the confines of a seminary for young ladies. Bruce Beresford’s 1991 movie Black Robe accompanies a Jesuit missionary team on a gruelling trek across Canada as they bid to convert the First Nations people to Christianity. Both the vast landscape and encounters with local people who bear animosity leads to a film that is at times brutal, at others beautiful.
Veneno Para Las Hadas (Poison for the Fairies) directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada is a 1982 Mexican film with a rather different theme and aesthetic. Concentrating upon the relationship between two young girls living in a rural area as one embroils the other in the notion of witchcraft; Poison For The Fairies is a quite different inclusion iin the canon of North and Central American folk horror
The culture and landscape of Central and South America are rich in folklore and history. Mel Gibson’s 2006 movie Apocalypto follows the plight of a Mesoamerican tribe, particularly a young man, Jaguar Paw (played by Rudy Youngblood), as their lives are threatened by an invading force seeking human sacrifice, in a bid to ensure their own culture’s survival. The film has been controversial regarding the accuracy of the portrayal of the cultures of the period with different scholars and critics divided on their opinions. Another film worthy of mentioning, that casts its protagonists into a hostile landscape far from home, is German director Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Following the expedition of 16th century Conquistadores searching for the fabled city of gold El Dorado, Aguirre sees madness and death unfold. Though not a horror, Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo is again set in Amazonia, and its feel and dreamlike quality in telling the tale of a steamship being dragged over a hill in Peru may appeal to fans of the folk horror aesthetic.
Casting our boats into the vast Pacific, there aren’t many horror films that concern themselves with the Oceanic islands until we get to New Zealand, though Polynesian culture offers many beautiful myths and lore, some with a dark heart. Māori tradition has however delivered more in the way of horror or dark folktale inspired material to the small and large screens. Mataku was a New Zealand television series that ran between 2002 and 2005, that was in format something akin to Tales of the Unexpected or The Twilight Zone was inspired by Māori myth and folklore. Whilst many New Zealand horror films are concerned with the more mainstream (if horror is ever particularly mainstream) fare of vampires, zombies and suchlike, John Laing’s
1985 film The Lost Tribe follows the trail of an anthropologist who disappears whilst travelling on a research mission studying a reclusive tribe.
Into the vast expanse of the Australian outback we see landscape and isolation play a big role in some of the films of the land down under. It is noteworthy that the films that will be mentioned here for the most part fall into that ‘are they actually horror films?’ category. It really depends on how you personally define horror, for it is subjective and folk horror even more so. For the deep feelings of dread that isolation and environment can provoke, these films certainly merit a mention here; the aesthetic and otherworldly qualities tie them in with the broader view of folk horror. Let us begin with Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout. Categorised as Austrialian New Wave or alternatively as Ozploitation, Walkabout is loosely based on James Vance Marshall’s 1959 novel of the same name. Following a manic violent episode and subsequent suicide of their father, a teenage girl and her younger brother become stranded in the outback. Struggling to survive they are discovered by a young native man (played by the great indigenous actor David Gulpilil), who helps them survive in the wilderness but at a cost to himself. Roeg’s considerable skill as a cinematographer makes great use of the vast, barren sun-baked environment of the Outback. The notion that such a place could drive a soul to madness is again brought to the fore in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, also released in 1971 and initially bearing the title Outback. The film centres on a young teacher John Grant (played by Gary Bond), who en route to Sydney stops off in a blood and spit rural mining town known colloquially as the Yabba. John is aloof to the hard-living residents but, becoming engrossed in a gambling game, loses his money and becomes stranded in the town. The influence of the residents and the outback immerse him and he falls into a spiral of alcohol abuse and identity crisis. Both Walkabout and Wake in Fright raised controversy about scenes depicting the actual hunting and killing of animals. These scenes do make for some uncomfortable viewing but it is worthwhile to read up on their inclusion. Whilst it can be argued that the scenes are not vital to the films, their inclusion does emphasise the brutal aspect of the outback, where survival seems to be a constant, harsh struggle. Nature fights back in Colin Eggleston’s strange 1977 movie, Long Weekend. An urbanite couple go for a camping trip in the country but proceed to disrespect the animals and the environment. The natural world then unites to make them pay for their callous and thoughtless behaviour.
A supernatural aspect to the Outback is revealed in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Based on Joan Lindsay’s luscious 1967 novel of the same name, the story centres around a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College attending a Valentine’s Day picnic at Hanging Rock, a geological feature out in the bush. Several girls and one of the teachers do not return from the day out. Mystery surrounds their disappearance – did they suffer to an accident? Did they get lost and succumb to the hot, dry conditions? Were they raped and murdered … or did some stranger fate befall them? The location is a major player in the film; Hanging Rock, or Ngannelong (or Anneyelong) to give it its traditional Aboriginal name, is a dead volcano in Victoria. Formerly it was occupied by the Woi Wurrung, Taungurung and Dja Dja Wurrung tribes but were driven from it in colonial times. The old lore of the rock has vanished as mysteriously as the girls and teacher from the film and book (intriguingly Picnic at Hanging Rock created its own myth as to whether the narrative was based upon an actual event). Despite the lack of real Aboriginal presence in Picnic at Hanging Rock, within Weir’s dreamlike cinematic direction of Lindsay’s hauntingly romantic book a shadow of the Dreamtime is cast by the rock. Weir did however pursue more distinctly indigenous themes in his 1976 film The Last Wave. This film is intriguing as it infuses the whole of Australia, both rural and urban with the Dreaming. The Dreamtime or Dreaming refers to the cosmological / spiritual concept of the Australian Aboriginal people whereby in a time out of time the land is inhabited with supernatural entities. The Dreaming is spoken of sometimes in the concept of ‘everywhen’ which refers to all times at once. In The Last Wave, it can also be seen as being everywhere or at least everywhere in Australia, as from outback to city strange weather suddenly arises as a lawyer (Richard Chaberlain) begins to feel a psychic connection to a man (David Gulpilil) who is accused, with a group of others, of committing murder. The aspect of everywhere and everywhen is perhaps also subtly suggested by the magnetic anomalies of the watches stopping both in Picnic at Hanging Rock and also in Wolf Creek (2005). Wolf Creek, directed by Greg McClean, is a brutal slice of Australian backwoods horror, that uncompromisingly reminds us that the isolation of the bush and Outback are perfect hunting grounds for serial killers – though whilst the prey may at times be few and far between, once the hunt has begun,both it and the ensuing slaughter can be pursued at grisly leisure. The Kettering Incident television series (2016) also looks at disappearances that is not due to killers on the road abducting victims, but instead is associated to mysterious lights seen in the sky above the mysterious, evocative forests of Tasmania.
Depictions of horror are rich and prevalent in Asian folklore, art and cinema; however, landscape tends not to be as much a factor as in the Chinese wuxia movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) for instance. A common feature of Japanese horror (or J-horror), the most internationally successful of all Asian horror films, is that of Yūrei – that is to say ghosts, and especially the Onryō or vengeful ghost. Frequently depicted as pale females with very long black hair, the most famous of which is probably Sadako from the Ringu series, these entities have been seen in Japanese cinema in earlier films such as The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959), The Ghost of Oiwa’s Spirit (1961) and 1968’s Yabu no naka no Kuroneko (also known simply as Kureneko). Yukki-onna is a similar looking spirit seen in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 film Kwaidan (meaning Ghost Stories and based on the folk tales transcribed in the 19th century by Lafcadio Hearn). Yukki-onna however is an elemental spirit rather than the tortured soul of a dead girl and is associated to the winter. Featuring in the section of the film entitled The Woman of the Snow, this tale would send a shiver down the spine of the viewer, listener or reader for that is literally the point of Japanese ghost stories; unlike the spooky tales that are told in the west around Halloween and Christmas, in Japan ghost stories were told in the summer with the intention of causing a chill to ease the heat. Whilst ghosts of the west may be confined to particular locations, it appears from Japanese movies at least that Onryō may travel from place to place, often haunting a particular person rather than locale. Similar entities are known across Asia by a variety of names. A Japanese film that uses the landscape of reed fields to amazing effect is Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 masterpiece Onibaba (which translates as Demon Hag). Onibaba relates the situation of two women who live in the rustic area and make a living by killing and robbing soldiers during the 14th century civil war. One day a demon masked man appears in their midst and the relationship between the women takes a darker turn. Fabrice du Welz’s 2008 film Vinyan is actually a British-French-Belgian-Australian movie but is set in Southeast Asia after the devastating 2004 tsunami. Searching for their son who was lost in the disaster a western couple find themselves out of their depth in an unfamiliar continent.
The continent of Africa has a rich and diverse bounty of folklore, legend and myth from the Ancient Egyptians in the north to the Zulu nation of the south, and a tremendous and vast, varying landscape, but horror films are only beginning to blossom here and future creations are eagerly anticipated. Thanks goes to Folk Horror Revival colleague, Richard Hing, for alerting me to several unfamiliar diamonds from Africa. Yeleen is a 1987 movie from Mali, directed by Souleymane Cisse, the title of which means ‘brightness’ in English. Based on a legend known to the Bambara people, it tells of a young man with magical powers who is tracked by his father, who wants to kill him, through the terrain of West Africa. In 2016, Uganda produced Bunjako, directed by Kizito Samuel Saviour, which centres on a group of students who find themselves lost in a haunted forest. Rungano Nyoni’s 2017 film, I Am Not A Witch displays how old superstitions and suspicion can still affect a populace in its tale of a young girl who is accused of practising witchcraft. As with America and Australia, the lonely roads and vast expanses of the African continent can give certain dangerous individuals a chance to kill at their leisure should unfortunate victims pass their way. The people of Namibia still shudder at the mention of Nhadiep, a notorious murderer. Nhadiep (born Klaas Pieters) went on the run in the early 1980s leaving several dead bodies in his wake. Successfully eluding the law, he became a legendary figure and was rumoured to possess supernatural powers. Following the fatal shooting of Nhadiep in 1982 by Sergeant Coenraad du Preez, people said that the ghost of Nhadiep still lingered in the Karas mountains and when spoken of, when it is dared even to speak his name, he is referred to as a bogeyman type figure. At least two very different films have been inspired by the case of Nhadiep. David Wicht’s Windprints (1989) is a straightforward fact-based drama starring John Hurt and Sean Bean that follows the manhunt through the unforgiving terrain whilst Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992) is inspired by the case but takes it in a more supernatural, stylised direction. Both Dust Devil and Miguel Llansó’s 2015 movie Crumbs, display the African landscape in a post-apocalyptic / science fiction fantasy fashion rather than showing it in its current age and in respect to the lore of its past, but Crumbs especially, does make good use of the immense and unyielding expanse and topography of the continent.
Let us now head northwards and back into Europe. Whilst Italy is more well known for its Giallo suspense thrillers, a film that displays the old beliefs of rural areas in a dark and dramatic fashion is Il Demonio (Brunello Rondi, 1963). A decade before The Exorcist, Il Demonio narrates the tale of Purif (played by Daliah Lavi) who in exploring the rustic magic practise of malocchio is suspected by the locals and clergy of a Southern Italian mountain village to be not only a witch but possessed by evil spirits. The film portrays the grim actions spawned by the locals’ fears As the persecution of Purif endures, it feels like there is no escape for her in this Spaghetti Western like habitat; the village looking as if it had actually sprung forth from the rock of this desolate terrain. Spaghetti Westerns were also incidentally filmed in Spain where we will turn to next.
The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 casts a shadow over some of Spain’s cinematic output and it is the aftermath period of this that provides the setting for Victor Erice’s El Espíritu de la Colmena – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Despite a subplot involving Boris Karloff’s iconic rendition of Frankenstein’s Monster, The Spirit of the Beehive is not a horror film but it does have a very earthy yet ethereal quality and an aesthetic that is akin to folk horror. This tale of a child encountering a wounded soldier in a sheep pen in a lonely location surrounded by a beautiful yet haunting landscape, informs the work of director Guillermo del Toro who has expressed admiration for the film. Its influence can perhaps be seen more in El Espinazo del Diablo – The Devil’s Backbone (2001) than in his striking fantasy El laberinto del fauno – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), though both of these films also relate to the influence of the civil war. The Devil’s Backbone interweaves the tale of a missing boy at a remote orphanage and a subsequent haunting with the political turmoil of the time. J.A. Bayona’s 2007 film El Orfanato – The Orphanage also utilises a home for children whose parents have died as the centre of its narrative but is set in contemporary times. Before we head out of the Mediterranean, a mention must go to the absolutely stunning landscape in the 2017 Greek short film Mandelion, directed Achilleas Gatsopoulos, about the nature spirits the Neraides.
Though there are other film genres mixed into Le Pacte des Loupes (Brotherhood of the Wolf) directed by Christophe Gans in 2001, its inspiration by the true-life killings that occurred in the French province of Gévaudan lends to it a folk horror element. Between 1764 and 1767 there were an estimated 210 attacks upon people with perhaps a hundred deaths in the mountainous region. They were attributed to a ferocious beast that some thought to be a wolf or wild dog but that others feared to be a werewolf. Brotherhood of the Wolf adds a theme of intrigue and conspiracy to its stylish depiction of the story.
Fabrice du Welz, mentioned earlier as the director of Vinyan, gives a bizarre and brutal lesson about the dangers of having a vehicle break down in a rural, sylvan town in Belgium in his 2004 backwoods horror Calvaire (The Ordeal). Though it may veer into ‘urban wyrd’ territory Pieter Van Hees 2008 film Linkeroever (Left Bank) has the curiosity of nature creeping back in to reclaim the Left Bank area of the Belgian city Antwerp and gives the impression through its exterior cinematography ,and the isolation of the protagonist, of transpiring in a more remote place than it actually is.
Filmed mostly in Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Germany and The Netherlands Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) sees director Werner Herzog again unite with actor Klaus Kinski and the band Popol Vuh who worked together on the afore mentioned Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. This remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens combines some stunning photography (especially making good use of the Tatra Mountains) with atmospheric music to create a dream-like vampiric folktale on screen. Jeder für sich und Gott gegen – The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; Herzog’s 1974 movie based upon the true story of a young German man who was suspected first of being a feral foundling but then became the figure of greater theory and curiosity, is again not a horror film as such but the strange narrative and use of place lend it also to this essay.
Heading northward button up your coats as we travel into Scandinavia, where there is a good argument that folk horror cinema originated. Häxan(or Heksen) Witchcraft Through the Ages is a 1922 Danish -Swedish co-production written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. It is presented as a docudrama but it is more fantastical than that. It is clear to see that Christensen had fun researching the weird and grisly details gleaned from accused witches’ confessions and from folklore and in his dark presentation of these tales, he made Häxan a work of art that is ahead of its time. Originally presented as a silent movie, Häxan has been re-released with various scores and voice-overs including narration by the acclaimed Beat poet and occultist William Burroughs and more recently by, the talented actor and writer of gallows-humour tv shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No. 9, Reece Shearsmith
There are aesthetic and thematic elements to be found in a number of the films and television shows that have been associated to the crime thriller genre known as Scandinavian Noir. A pair of Swedish television series Ängelby and Jordskott (both premiering in 2015) initially seem like regular detective stories but then unveil an undercurrent of supernatural weirdness. Set in small towns in wooded areas both shows display an earthy folk horror strangeness. In the case of Jordskott association is drawn to the skogsrå – forest spirits of Nordic lore. Norway has also drawn on its rich folklore for a number of movies. Aleksander L. Noraas’ 2012 movie Thale also explores the concept of forest spirits. A Thale (or Thallen or Huldra) is a female wood spirit that may have a hollow back but generally, as is the case in the film, the Thale possess cow tails. Noraas’ film relates to one of these creatures that was discovered being held in captivity. Whilst Thale is not a bad film, my personal preferences would have seen it produced with less mainstream horror action and instead given it a slower stranger atmosphere. 2010’s Trolljegeren – Trollhunter (directed by André Øvredal) pulls off the at-times risky ‘found footage’ approach very well. Following a film crew making a documentary about a man whose mission in life is to hunt trolls – those lumpy, unpleasant monsters of Norse myth and fairy-tales. This it does with dark humour, interesting character exchange and the use of the wintry landscape is so powerful you can almost feel a chill through the viewing screen. Before we head eastwards, a diversion west to Iceland and Nietzcha Keene’s The Juniper Tree. Starring elven singer Bjork, The Juniper Tree tells the tale of two sisters who flee from their home after their mother is executed as a witch. Filmed in black and white, the film displays a desolate beauty and is something of a folk horror hidden gem.
Finally, on our folk horror odyssey we shall again head eastward. Finland has offered some treats to the folk horror viewer; it is home to one of the oddest Yuletide movies ever – Jalmari Helander’s 2010 Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale in which wild Santas are captured and traded,but it is another two movies that better illustrate the Finnish landscape. Valkoinen Peura – The White Reindeer (directed by Erik Blomberg in 1952) is an early folk horror classic and again one that deserves to be better known. Taking inspiration from Sami mythology and folklore, The White Reindeer is a strange, spellbinding tale of shamanism, transformation and vampirism.
Antti-Jussi Annila’s 2008 film Sauna (also known as Filth and Evil Rising) is set in the aftermath of the 16th century Swedish-Russian war which saw Finland used as a battlefield. Two brothers are given the job of marking the Finnish-Russian border but find themselves in a swamp that is not marked upon the map, and upon discovering a bathhouse in the dank and treacherous terrain, dark forces are stirred. The cinematic use of the location in Sauna is delightfully menacing and eerie. For those wishing to investigate more Finnish horror, Roland af Hällström’s 1952 movie Noita Palaa Elämään – The Witch is also worth checking out.
Returning to the snow, Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки – The night Before Christmas or as it is better known Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is a 1961 Soviet film directed by Aleksandr Rou based on a series of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. It is charming yet weird film that sees perhaps the cutest depiction of the devil in screen history. 1967’s Вий – Viy, also based on a Gogl tale and directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov has a similar aesthetic to Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and is a classic of East European folk horror. Viy relates the tale of a young priest holding a three-day vigil over the corpse of a witch. Морозко – Morozko. Father Frost is actually a children’s film, at least I think it is. It is rather creepy whether it intends to be or not and it does feature a favourite witch of Folk Horror Revivalists – Baba Yaga. The most disturbing thing about it though for me is the bear mask, worn by the actor whose character is transformed into a bear. All of these 3 films have a particular cultural aesthetic that is enchanting and appealing.
The 1981 Ukranian movie directed by Yuri Ilyenko, Lesnaya Pesnya. Mavka – A Story of the Forest is a dark fairy tale relating to wood nymphs whilstЛептирица – Leptirica – The She-butterfly is a 1973 former Yugoslavian film directed byĐorđe Kadijević based on a story by Serbian writer Milovan Glišić. Dealing with a rustic village that harbours a haunted mill with a vampiric association, Leptirica is influenced by the Slavic folklore that describes how vampires may take the form of butterflies and has been considered to be the first Serbian horror film. Former Czechoslovakia has exported some of the finest international folk horror both in certain movies of the Czech New Wave and in the distinctly creepy animation by master filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, (Alice, Faust and Little Otik are all classic folk horror animations worth seeing). Numerous Czech films have folk horror elements or qualities, but for the purpose of this essay will mention only a handful. Kladivo na carodejnice – Witchhammer
directed by Otakar Vávra in 1970 and based upon the novel by Václav Kaplický returns us to the days of the witch hunts, specifically those of Northern Moravia in the 17th Century. There is quite possibly a political subtext of the times within Witchhammer but taken directly as a historical horror it is a powerful film. Juaj Herz’s 1972 film Morgiana about two twisted sisters is in a way a sort of Bohemian Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, but is also a visual delight. The atmospheric coastal scenes were shot on location in Bulgaria. Finally we will end our folk horror world tour with 1970’s Valerie a Týden Divů – Valerie and Her Week of Wonders which was directed by Jaromil Jireš and based upon the novel by Vítězslav Nezval. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a visual delight, surreal and dreamlike. Its narrative at times is not always the easiest to follow, but the basic gist is that the titular Valerie, upon entering womanhood, becomes the focus of lust of numerous characters, men women and even priests and vampires. Filmed around the area of Slavonice, some of the scenes in the film are truly beautiful. Its oneiric atmosphere and aesthetic appealed to both the author Angela Carter and director Neil Jordan and its influence can be seen in their 1984 dark fairy-tale The Company of Wolves. This luscious adaptation of the Red Riding Hood tale with extra sensual elements pertaining to Carter’s work in her The Bloody Chamber short story collection has appeal to both the appreciators of gothic horror as well as folk horror, and as sure as apples fall from the orchard tree, it brings us back to Britain where our story today began.
Back in the infancy of Folk Horror Revival, myself and fellow founding member Darren Charles cut our teeth on the live talk scene on behalf of FHR, delivering a lecture to the Alchemical Landscapes symposium at Girton College, Cambridge Univerity. In those hallowed halls we dedicated our talk to two luminaries of sound – Cambridge town’s own madcap Syd Barrett (as it was on the anniversary of his death that we spoke) and also to Delia Derbyshire, as Girton was the college she attended whilst studying her twin passions of mathematics and music.
But why would a pair of northern folk horror revivalists pay homage to an electronic music pioneer? The answer lies in that peculiar relationship (symbiosis?) between folk horror and hauntology. That and the fact we were both honoured and awed to be invited to speak at the seat of learning that the sculptress of sound once haunted with her presence.
Caroline Catz’s impressive documentary / docu-drama Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes (broadcast as part of the BBC’s Arena arts programming) further illustrates the bond between Derbyshire and her contemporaries and the worlds of folk horror & urban wyrd aesthetics.
Born in Coventry in 1937, Delia Derbyshire stated that hearing the sound of air raid sirens as a child during the war had a profound effect on her and cemented a lifelong obsession with sound. Hailing from a working class background (which the plum intonations of her speaking voice would hardly suggest), Delia was offered places to study at both Oxford and Cambridge but followed a scholarship at the latter to study mathematics. She combined this course with her love of phonaesthetics and graduated in 1959 with a BA in Maths and Music.
Having taken up a position at the BBC in 1960; in 1962 she was reassigned to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – a department that some may have considered as punishment but a place where Delia felt a yearning to be. It is her work and time here that provides the main focus of Catz’s documentary.
Set up in 1957 by Desmond Briscoe and the legendary Daphne Oram (an aural enchantress whose mastery of sonic weirdness was hidden behind features that would not have looked out of place at a Women’s Institute coffee morning) the task of the Radiophonic Workshop was to provide incidental sounds for radio and then television programming. Their task of creating new and different sounds led the workshop, which was based in Maida Vale, London and employed the sonic services of a number of sound wizards and visionaries to various fields of experimentation and the embracing of tape manipulation and Musique Concrete methodology. Oram departed the Workshop to found her own studio in 1959, but Delia would later fill those shoes with great competence and vision. A moment that would mark her place in music history came in 1963 when composer Ron Grainer asked whether she could do anything for a theme tune that was needed for a new BBC series. Providing Delia with a few musical notes and abstract suggestions for sounds including “wind bubbles” and “wind clouds”, she set to work. The TV show was called Doctor Who and for it Delia crafted one of the most infamous, innovative, timeless and enduring television theme tunes ever.
Catz’s documentary of course captures that seminal moment, but she has a lot more to say about the life, loves, art and depression of Delia Derbyshire. The film is cut between interviews with those who knew and worked with Delia, recordings of her own voice in interviews and dramatised scenes in which Catz herself plays Delia. (I was racking my brain trying to remember where I recognised Caroline Catz from and it turns out that she plays the love interest of Doctor Martin in the eponymous tv show that has seemed to air on British telly since the dawn of time). In my mind now though she will be forever associated to this film which is clearly a work of love as well as of art.
Catz guides us through the highs and lows of Delia’s life and soundscapes- through a haze of marijuana smoke and acid colours as psychedelia and Delia embraced each other and her depression and alcoholism (which was not considered much of a problem by Delia who seemed to see herself as a hopeful drunk rather than a hopeless one). We surrender to the white noise and are immersed in history and sound under the guiding light of Nick Gillespie’s cinematography. We voyeuristically listen on as seance-like, Delia engages in conversation with the disembodied voices of Mary Wollstonecraft and Ada Lovelace. Yet we are not merely enveloped in the broadcast of ghosts, for working with the 267 tapes belonging to Delia, that were found stored in cereal boxes in an attic after her death in 2001, the artist Cosey Fanni Tutti (possibly most well known for her work in the extreme art-music scene of COUM and Throbbing Gristle alongside Genesis P-Orridge) uses the magical archive to create more manipulation of sound. It is not just Tutti however that has been inspired by Delia Derbyshire, as without her and the other Radiophonic visionaries the music output of the likes of Caro C, Burial, the Ghostbox oeuvre, Concretism, Broadcast, The Soulless Party and various other trip-hop, vapourwave, hauntological, electronic and film, TV & radio soundscape composers would likely be a different kettle of fish altogether.
Passing away from renal failure early after the turn of the century, Delia Derbyshire would likely be “tickled pink” to know that two decades into the 21st Century that the sound experiments she created as much as 60 years ago would be inspiring and innovating musicians and music now.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths & The Legendary Tapes is available for free streaming to UK viewers now at ~
In the 21st Century Folk Horror Revival, several names keep coming to the fore, among those are the partnership of British film director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Together they have previously brought us the new wave of folk horror gems Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) as well as the tangentially associated Sightseers (2012) – a darkly humourous film that is akin to Mike Leigh’s classic 1976 BBC play Nuts in May but on PCP. In the years between then and now Wheatley and Jump have ventured into the world of the Urban Wyrd with their adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise (2015) as well as working separately on a variety of works.
When rumours began to be whispered around that Wheatley was returning to the old pastures of pastoral terror, the ears of folk horror folk began to prick up. Then the trailer dropped for In The Earth with its flashing psychedelic images, discordant noise, glimpses of folksy woodcut art and a monolith that hearkens back to the cult ‘children’s’ book and TV series of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The tag line of the trailer invitites us to go on a Trip with Ben Wheatley and why the Hell not? I’m up for that. https://youtu.be/3Lqkfo7IymU
And so it must be assumed that Mr Wheatley may have a fascination for hallucinogenic mushrooms as they play a part in his alchemical civil war drama A Field in England and play a greater role in In the Earth. The premise of the film sees Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) venture out from a state of quarantine imposed upon urban areas due to an unspecified viral pandemic to a research facility in a forest in the south west of England. The shadow of the pandemic is not only cast over the health and safety measures Martin must undertake and the scientific research prevalent in such times but it also manifests in the social awkwardness and behaviour of folks who live in conditions of isolation and distance. Martin as such is a non-typical protagonist, he is not some confident self-assured doctor-come-hero of numerous horror and sci-fi films but a quiet, anxious individual. In seeking out his ex-lover and scientific partner Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is researching the mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants) network beneath the forest which has a higher than normal soil fertility, Martin is assigned the trekking assistance of a woodland ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia). Before setting off into the woods, seeing a large woodcut artwork upon the wall of the cabin recommissioned as a research base, Alma informs Martin about the local lore and belief in a sylvan spirit named Parnag Fegg.
Whilst camping in the woods, the pair are subjected to a nocturnal attack by an unseen assailant. They are not badly hurt but the attacker has stolen their shoes, making an already precarious journey more troubled still. This is darkened further by Martin tearing the sole of his foot open upon sharp terrain. All is not lost however as a bedraggled man Zach who lives and works as an artist in the woods, approaches them and offers them food, drink, shelter and footwear. he even stitches up Martin’s wound. This rudimentary arboreal operation is one of several scenes where gore and the ‘ouch-factor’ comes into play. As with Kill List, Wheatley and Jump’s ‘Arthurian’ gangster movie (it is much better than that description sounds) violence and injury are graphically depicted in In The Earth. However as may not be totally unexpected there is more to Zach and his art than may first appear.
After a brutal hallucinogenic nightmare unfolds, Martin and Alma against all odds reach the research camp of Dr Olivia Wendle, whom it transpires her study has progressed beyond soil fertility and is also trying to reach the ‘consciousness’ of the mycorhizzal mat – the spirit of the earth. Though she is attempting to invoke an animistic presence through science (utilising sound and light – which significantly shapes the aesthetic of core sections of the movie) rather than art like Zach, her practices are ritualistic and it becomes apparent that her and Zach are perhaps estranged but are not strangers to each other.
Sound and image are very important factors of the film as can be seen from the Art and Sound department’s roll call of talent which reads as a folk horror revivalist / hauntologist’s dream – Richard Well’s woodcuts, Julian House’s credits sequence, camera work & cinematography by Nick Gillespie and musical / soundscape composition by Clint Mansell. One scene that will likely live on in future discussion of Wheatley’s work alongside the culminating ritual of Kill List and the magic mushroom sequence in A Field in England, is the passing of a hazmat suited Alma into a mist of fungal spores. The image of her affixed to a rope is reminiscent of the tent scene in a Field in England and both have a symbolic resonance of an emerging child still attached to the umbilical cord suggesting a birth or rebirth. It must be noted however that any viewer who may experience seizures when exposed to flashing lights or certain sound wavelengths should proceed with great care if at all, for numerous segments of the film are something of a sonic and stroboscopic assault.
But is it all style over substance? Not quite, but I do feel that the film would have benefited from greater input into the writing from Amy Jump (whose role on this film is given as a Producer credit) and /or a longer period of time taken by Wheatley on the plot development (he only spent 15 days on the script-writing). This is particularly pertinent to the ending which could in my mind have been both stronger and stranger. Part of both Kill List and A Field in England’s strength (though it would annoy some viewers) is the ambiguity. Too much yet oddly maybe not enough is revealed with In the Earth. Much of the plot is quite predictable and follows a familiar enough path. It would have been better perhaps to follow wander lines and go further into the abstract and see where the film would end up.
However this is a film made in strange times under different conditions. It will be noted in future as a work that was seeded, grown and bloomed in the days of the Covid19 plague. It offers further reading potential in that area and it has to be said that it does deliver scenes of both weird (and wyrd) beauty as well as brutality. The characteristics and dynamics of the characters are a bit off the beaten track which is interesting however and Shearsmith is particularly sharp casting. The shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No 9 display his versatility and his role of Zach is the most interesting in the film, though at times the visuals portraying him are suggestive of The Shining’s Jack Torrence escaping into the wild.
In conclusion, I liked In the Earth and with subsequent viewings I feel my appreciation for it could possibly grow more, but I would have liked more in terms of plot development which prevented me from experiencing love at first sight. But certainly it is an intriguing and welcome addition to both Wheatley’s oeuvre and the folk horror canon. I imagine though that it will be a film that divides audiences.
Urban Wyrd: A mode not a genre. A sense of otherness within the narrative, experience, image or feeling concerning a densely human-constructed area or the in-between spaces and edge-lands bordering the bucolic and the built -up: Or surrounding modern technology with regard to another energy at play or in control: be it supernatural, spiritual, historical, nostalgic or psychological. Possibly sinister but always somehow unnerving or unnatural.
This is not an exhaustive list of Urban Wyrd films but merely a taster, concentrating on cinema releases rather than television offerings.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker. No Urban Wyrd list would be complete without the featuring the work of writer Nigel Kneale and in cinematic examples this tale of the eminent scientist Bernard Quatermass and his research into ancient alien artefacts found beneath London is a neat fit. Beyond simply being hidden in the English capital’s subterranea, the influence of the extraterrestrials is discovered to be nestled deep within humankind’s psyche.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Directed by Peter Strickland. A quiet British sound engineer accepts a job at an Italian film studio specialising in violent cinema. As he becomes immersed into a world of sound and intense working practice, he also finds himself immersed into the brutal world unfolding onscreen.
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Directed by Shane Meadows. Returning to his home town, a hardened soldier tracks down the gang who tormented his vulnerable brother whilst he was away. A brutal kitchen-sink revenge thriller with a twist in its tale.
The Apartment Trilogy: Repulsion (1965) Rosemary’s Baby (1968) The Tenant (1976)
Directed by Roman Polanski. Polanski’s career and creation has been overshadowed by the heinous crimes commited by him and there is no morally sound defense of the man. Whether art and artist can be divided however is a personal decision, yet films are a sum of parts – cast, crew, director; and The Apartment Trilogy is a significant element of cinema invoking the Urban Wyrd mode. In Repulsion we see madness envelop and absorb a young woman within her apartment in London, whereas in Rosemary’s Baby (shot at the Dakota building in New York that has its own real-life urban wyrd history) a young couple move into a building where the husband falls under the spell of his overbearing elderly neighbours whilst his wife falls pregnant but all may not be fine with her baby. The Tenant is the least known and possibly weakest of the trilogy, but this tale of a man moving into a Parisian apartment where the neighbours are somewhat off, is certainly well worth a watch, but as it does star Roman Polanski himself, some viewers may choose to bypass this one.
Directed by Matthew Holness. Following a scandal, a puppeteer moves back to his childhood home where his past and present continue to haunt him. A child vanishes whilst the marionette maker is tormented by one of his own creations. The shooting locations and Radiophonic soundtrack of this psychological thriller add to its dank unsettling atmosphere.
Directed by David Lynch. Henry, a nervous quiet man discovers that his girlfriend has given birth but the baby is deformed, sickly and incessantly crying. In a mix of domestic strangeness and factory surrealism, Henry is caused to confront life in Lynch’s weird and grotesquely beautiful cinematic debut.
Under the Skin (2013)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer. This loose adaption of Michael Faber’s book of the same name quite possibly owes more to Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth as it does the source novel, concerning itself with an alien on earth with a purpose but discovering more about itself whilst discovering humankind. One of the oddest road movies out there, this film features some atmospheric and impressive photography and sound work.
Directed by David Cronenberg. A good portion of Cronenberg’s films have an urban wyrd edge, so which to go for here? Let’s opt for 1996’s Crash which has perhaps the most unconventional narrative, dealing as it does with the world of symphorophilia – the kink of being sexually aroused by observing and even orchestrating disasters – most pertinently in this film in the form of automobile accidents. Based on a novel by maestro of the urban wyrd JG Ballard, this is perhaps not the most joyful or comfortable watch but is an intriguing shard of cinematic history.
Directed by Claude Faraldo. The 1973 French movie Themroc is another curious piece of cinema. It follows a day in the life of titular character Themroc, but not just any day. It is the day that he grows weary of his humdrum job and his apartment block existence and turns instead to incest with his sister, the cannibalism of a policeman and destruction on a scale that soon extends beyond anarchy but into a chaotic riotous regression into a primitive existence.
Want to avoid Mrs Brown’s Boys, The Queen’s Speech and whatever else TV throws at us this Christmastide? Of course there’s the great Ghost Stories for Christmas drama series and re-watching childhood favourites such as The Box of Delights but here we take the snow shovel and dig up some other possible additions for your alternative winter watching on the cold dark nights …
The White Reindeer (1952)
Original title – Valkoinen Peura. Directed by Erik Blomberg, this Finn classic concerns itself with a newlywed woman Pirita (played by Mirjami Kuosmanen) who visits a local Sami Shaman for help in spicing up her love-life. The spell cast indeed turns the woman not only into a seductress – but into a true femme-fatale as she now has a vampiric hunger. The White Reindeer’s star has shone brighter again in the advent of the folk horror revival yet this beautiful dark tale deserves to be seen more widely still.
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, The Curse of the Cat People is a sequel to 1942’s Cat People, though it can be watched in isolation as the film differs quite differently from its predecessor (which is certainly well worth a watch also). Less of a ‘horror’ than its antecedent, Curse centres on Amy (Ann Carter) the 6 year old daughter of Ollie Reed (Kent Smith). Amy is a dreamy child who finds herself different and therefore somewhat alienated by her peers. In her solitude she finds an ‘imaginary friend’ who just happens to be the late first wife of her strict and rather arrogant father. In addition to Irena (Simone Simon) – the ghost or daydream first wife and cat person (although cats do not feature in this film), Amy also befriends an old woman – a reclusive former actress with dementia, much to the envy and upset of the woman’s own daughter.
Морозко (Father Frost / Jack Frost) (1964)
Directed by Aleksandr Rou, Morozko or Father Frost is based on Russian folk and fairy tales and follows the trope of a young girl, Nastenka (Natalya Sedykh) who on the cusp of coming of age is ill-treated by a mean and jealous stepmother. Meeting a potential suitor Ivan (Eduard Izotov) doesn’t exactly bode well when a spell turns Ivan’s head into that of a bear. (Looking like a surreal, mangy version of Bungle from British kid’s show Rainbow is one of the reasons this children’s film ends up on a darker film list as it is potential nightmare fuel for some). Folkloric figures such as Morozko – a Russian winter spirit who has traits of both Father Christmas and Jack Frost and witchy favourite Baba Yaga also serve to make this film a weird watch.
Wind Chill (2007)
Directed by Gregory Jacobs. When a university student accepts a car share lift at the start of the Christmas holidays she soon realises that the driver is not exactly whom he claims to be, yet as they are driven off the road in a remote area in sub-zero conditions there is more still to worry about as both the present and the past threaten to claim their lives.
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi and based upon Japanese ghost stories and folk-tales collected and translated by the folklorist Lafcadio Hearn is a classic of Japanese cinema. Though the whole portmanteau film is a visual delight, it is the Yuki-Onna tale that most concerns us here today. In this segment two men are caught out in a winter blizzard and seek refuge in a fisherman’s hut. During the night, their shelter is violated by a beautiful yet deadly woman of the snow. One man loses his life but their supernatural assailant takes pity on the other due to his youth and good looks. She warns him never to speak of what happened that night, but his life remains haunted by the strange encounter.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Also known as Dance of the Vampires and Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck is directed and co-written by and stars Roman Polanski. Polanski is understandably and justifiably a difficult figure due to the crimes he has committed in his off screen life. Whether to divorce art from artist or to bypass the work of contentious or criminal figures is a personal choice, but within the realm of film it is a case that the output is a communal effort of many members of crew and cast. And together they have produced a strange addition to the many Vampire films out there. Set in the dead of winter, this comedy -horror film has the look and feel of Slavic fairy-tale cinema and has a great soundtrack by Krystof Komeda. It is notable also for starring Sharon Tate – the former wife of Polanski and tragic victim of the Manson Family Murders.
Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren (2010)
Directed by André Øvredal, the Norwegian found-footage / mockumentary telling the tale of a young film crew investigating a man (Otto Jespersen) whose occupation is that of a Troll Hunter sounds like it could be a disaster but it is actually well worth giving a chance to. It is a fun atmospheric jaunt into an aspect of horror folklore that is generally less widely explored in cinema than other monsters. And in the final segment you can almost feel the cold.
Directed by Antonia Bird and set in the Sierra Nevada in the 19th Century, we witness both the hard conditions of weather and war that may set a person on a desperate path but also we see the unfolding of a supernatural curse. Seeking inspiration from such tragic real historical events such as the Donner Party migration and the folklore of first nations people, Ravenous shows us what happens when people become afflicted with the curse of Wendigo-possession.
Though November may technically be regarded as autumn, this Estonian film is cold and dark enough to make our winter watch-list. Directed by Rainer Sarnet, November tells the tale of a 19th Century Estonian village that is beset by spirits of pestilence. In a bid to survive the harsh conditions, villagers turn to theft involving nefarious and esoteric means but it becomes an obsession outweighing their needs and no good can come of that. November boasts some especially stunning cinematography.
The Lodge (2019)
Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and produced by the revived Hammer studios, The Lodge in keeping with Hammer’s revival has no resembelance to their campy gothic output of the 1950s, 60s and 70s but is instead as dark and chilling as its intense wintery setting. Following the suicide of their mother, a pair of children accompany their father and his new lover, Grace, to a remote lodge for a Christmas holiday. Whilst their father is called back to the city by work commitments, the children, who resent Grace, discover that she was the sole survivor of a death cult. As strange events occur within the isolated chalet, their survial, mortality and existence come into grievous question.
Evenings on A Farm Near Dikanka / Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (1961)
Based on the story ‘ The Night Before Christmas’ by Nikolai Gogol ; Evenings is directed by Aleksandr Rou and shares the same visual and atmospheric strangeness of his later more well known film Morozko. Amid the seasonal revelry in a snowy Ukrainian village a blacksmith Vakula, (Yuri Tavrov) seeks the aid of the devil to transport him to St. Petersburg in Russia so that he may obtain a pair of slippers belonging to the Empress, in a bid to woo a local maiden Oksana (Lyudmyla Myznikova).
Black Robe (1991)
Directed by Bruce Beresford and though not a horror film as such the aesthetic, setting and grim events portrayed in this Canadian film should likely appeal to many fans of folk horror. In it we journey with a Jesuit priest Father LaForgue (Lothaire Bluteau) and his mostly Algonquin travel party across the wilderness of New France in winter as he intends to establish a new Christian mission in a far-off village. In addition to the terrain and hard weather, prophetic dreams, old faith and hostile strangers mar their way.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Again not a horror film, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone will nonetheless appeal to some fans of the Backwoods and Midwestern Gothic sub-genres. A 17 year old girl. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling in impoverished circumstances to look after her troubled mother and her brother and sister in the absence of their father imprisoned for the production of meth amphetamine. Survival is paramount to Ree who strives to teach her siblings how to live off the land but more troubles still fall upon the family due to the missing patriarch’s involvement in the meth trade.
Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Tomas Alfredson’s movie is a beautiful piece of cinema. When a strange young gir Eli ( Lina Leandersson) moves into a Stockholm apartment complex in the early 1980s, she strikes up a friendship with a 12 year old boy Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who is something of an outsider himself and a target of school bullies. However there is a lot more to Eli than meets the eye as we discover in this atmospheric slow-burning tale.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter / February (2015)
Directed by Osgood Perkins, The Blackcoat’s Daughter centres around a Catholic girls’ boarding school in upstate New York. Whilst most of the pupils have headed home for the winter vacation, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) find themselves left behind and despite their difference in school age and personality types, they find their lives fatefully entwined and to that of a young woman called Joan (Emma Roberts) who escapes from an insane asylum some years after the girls’ stories unfold.
Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)
The third of the Ginger Snaps franchise (this time directed by Grant Harvey) differs from the coming of age contemporary-times werewolf tale of the first two of the film series by taking the story back further to the early 19th Century but again starring Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as sisters Ginger and Brigitte. This tale of lycanthropy follows an ill-fated winter trading excursion to the Hudson Bay, whereupon the girls find their way to an abandoned camp and then to a fort, where they find shelter but only the start of their troubles.
Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark and also known in the USA as Silent Night – Evil Night has less connection to folk horror than others mentioned here but arguably could fall under our remit as urban wyrd (but who really cares about labels unless they are attached to Christmas presents?) Included because not only is Black Christmas one of the best Christmas slasher horror films, it is quite possibly one of the best Christmas films and Slasher films too. Simple and straightforward yet eerie and rather tense in its execution it tells the story of college girls in a shared accommodation that during the festive season are gifted first with dirty phone-calls and then with a more deadly Christmas presence.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, needs little introduction – both a classic of winter horror and urban wyrd, this story of Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) a caretaker and aspiring author succumbing to cabin fever and / or possession whilst holed up in a remote Colorado Rockies hotel over the heavy winter with his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and psychically gifted (or cursed) young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) has a habit of getting under the skin. In it we bear brutal witness to how Jack’s own buried alcohol-induced violence resurfaces towards his family but how also how violence is embedded into the very foundations and sinuous recurring history of the building itself.
As we move further into the dark as long nights draw in ever closer, we bring to you some movie suggestions that go against the grain somewhat of mainstream horror. Films that burn slow and burn both beautifully and grotesquely like candles made from human tallow. Films that haunt the mind …
In no particular order …
The Wind (2018) –
Directed by Emma Tammi. Written by Tessa Sutherland. Cinematography by Lyn Moncrief
In New Mexico in the late 19th Century, two couples strive to make a life for themselves on the wild frontier. As the story unfolds in a non-linear motion, we see their relationships and lives fall apart as something else stalks the threshold.
The Lighthouse (2019) Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert & Max Eggers. Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.
The simple tale of a Lighthouse keeper and his new assistant that get marooned on the rock in a raging storm. But even this wild weather is not as tempestuous as their relationship which descends into madness and a Promethean struggle over control of the light. Sirens and seagulls make their presence felt too on that ocean blasted crag. The dialogue in this film is coarsely mellifluous especially as it drips off the tongue in a sterling performance by Willem Dafoe. Robert Pattinson also firmly shakes off his twilight sparkle in the shit and kerosene of this brilliantly bat-shit crazy film.
Marrowbone (2017) Written & Directed by Sergio G. Sánchez. Cinematography by Xavi Giménez.
Set in rural Maine, but actually filmed in Spain, this film does have the feel of Spanish classics such as The Devil’s Backbone and Spirit of the Beehive – the sense of childhood sentimentality with a bitter under-taste of something strange, perhaps sinister. A single mother and her 4 children move from England to start a new life in what seems to be a haunted house but as her health worsens the family find out that their past is more haunting still.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) Written & Directed by Osgood Perkins. Cinematography by Julie Kirkwood.
This segmented film focuses around three young girls whose lives are fatefully entwined. As the boarding school they attend in upstate New York breaks up for a February vacation, Rose and Kat are left behind with only the company of two nuns. Rose has chosen not to return home as she fears she may be pregnant whilst the younger girl Kat’s parents fail to arrive to pick her up. It is apparent that Kat is a troubled girl, who feels lonely and isolated even when there are more girls around, but as her stay in the school progresses, her behaviour becomes stranger still. Joan, the third girl in the story, is a creature of mystery. We first encounter her as she escapes from a psychiatric hospital and is offered a lift by a man and his wife as she sits in a bus station. The darkness and heaviness of the winter permeates throughout this film invoking a strange sense of tension.
Gwen (2018) Written & Directed by William McGregor Cinematography by Adam Etherington.
During the Industrial Revolution a woman struggles to raise her two daughters and run a farm in the hills of North Wales, whilst her husband is away at war. Their lives turn harder still as they lose their sheep to apparently a blood-thirsty predator and as the local people grow increasingly hostile and shadowy figures in the mist watch the farm. Maxine Peake excels in her role as the hard-bitten mother.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018) Directed by Stacie Passon. Written by Shirley Jackson. Adapted by Mark Kruger. Cinematography by Piers McGrail.
Adapted from the excellently odd novel by Shirley Jackson, the film adaptation does change some elements but does maintain both the quirkiness of the book and the sense of isolation and ill-treatment that may befall people who are deemed to be outcasts or weird by communities. The Blackwood family are eccentric and insular but the town also fears them due to the matriarch and patriarch of the family having being killed by poisoning, with a finger of blame pointing to the eldest daughter Constance. Her, her younger sister and their confused Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover being cast perfectly in that role) have little contact with the outside world, but one day cousin Charles comes to visit and everything begins to change.
The Other Lamb (2019) Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska. Written by C.S. MCMullen. Cinematography by Michał Englert.
We are introduced to a female commune existing in what seems to be serenity, but then discover that all of the women and girls are the wives and daughters of a cult leader called Shepherd. Among their number a girl Selah comes of age, which the cult regard to be the curse of Eve and a symbol of impurity. Shepherd however begins taking a greater interest in Selah but she is troubled by strange visions. Being forced off the land by the local police, the group seek their ‘new Eden’ across the wilderness. The use of colour in this film is aesthetically and symbolically stunning, yet it serves also to unsettle us as we feel the undercurrent slowly rising beneath what initially seems to be a peaceful, bucolic idyll.
Possum (2018) Written and Directed by Matthew Holness. Cinematography by Kit Fraser
Possum is a little different from the other films on this list as Possum is a little different from most things. It has a dank damp dark aesthetic with its scrubby nature, edge-land settings and rundown town house interiors. Following some manner of disgrace, a puppeteer named Phillip is forced to return to his childhood home and the company of his unpleasant uncle (played creepily well by Alun Armstrong). When a child goes missing, Phillip finds himself a suspect but his mind is also troubled by a grotesque puppet that he cannot get rid of, but that is not all that haunts him. Adding to the grey cloud of possum is a delightfully dark hauntological score by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015) Written & Directed by Robert Eggers. Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.
Quite possibly the most familiar title on this list to folk horror revivalists, but even if seen before, always worth a re-watch; though there are those who are not beguiled by its wild charms, I must say it worked its magic on me. A family in New England struggle to survive far away from their Yorkshire home and banished by their brethren community for the father’s religious pride. Their misfortune begins when their youngest born, the baby Samuel is spirited away right from under the elder daughter Thomasin’s nose. On top of tragedy more misfortune falls – their crops are blighted, the nanny goat yields bloodied milk and the eldest son Caleb disappears only to return in a wretched, bewitched condition. Their suspicions turn to witchcraft but could the maleficence spring from a source closer to home?
Discover Hauntology, Weird Technology & Transport, Hauntings and much much more in the realms of TV, Film, Literature, Art, Culture , Lore and Life. Travel in time and spaces with Adam Scovell, Stephen Volk, Scarfolk, Julianne Regan, Sebastian Backziewicz, Sara Hannant, The Black Meadow and many other contributors.
Urban Wyrd – Spirits of Place. Discover within its winding streets Psychogeography, Genii Loci, Edgelands, Urban Exploration, Weird Places and many other strange matters within film, TV, music, literature, life and culture. Perambulate in the company of such contributors as Will Self, K.A. Laity, Bob Fischer, Iain Sinclair, Diane A. Rodgers, John Coulthart, Karl Bell and many many more.
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“Candyman suggests that oral storytelling and, by extension, urban legends are valuable forms of historical memory, and that the process of historical amnesia will be apocalyptic” – Kirsten Moana Thompson, 2007
In 1992 director Bernard Rose released his movie Candyman, loosely based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, it would go on to become a popular shocker, but there was much more to Candyman than a mere horror film. The film has several different narrative threads running through it, that deal with issues of race, gender and class.
The key protagonist in the story is Helen Lyle, played by Virginia Madsen, a graduate student undertaking research on the topic of urban legends, she visits the Cabrini-Green housing projects to investigate rumours of a hook handed killer known as the Candyman, who was alleged to have been lynched in the late 19th century after fathering a child with a white land owners daughter. With the help of resident Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) and a young boy called Jake, Helen was able to uncover the apartment where the Candyman killings are alleged to have taken place. Helen is later attacked by a drug dealer who is using the Candyman persona to spread fear among the residents.
Helen is eventually visited by the real Candyman, played by Tony Todd, who places her in a trance. Upon waking she finds herself in Anne-Marie’s apartment, covered in blood, and is duly arrested for the abduction and possible murder of Anne-Marie’s baby son, Anthony. Helen must go out of her way to clear her name, stop the Candyman and attempt to save baby Anthony. I won’t go into any further details for those who may not have seen the film, but it is highly recommended if you want a little more from your horror movies than just blood, guts and gore.
Devil’s Advocates is a new and ongoing series of monographs from Auteur publishing, concerned with the exploration of the classics of horror cinema, other entries in the series that may be of interest to revivalists include Witchfinder General, Black Sunday and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Contributors to the series are drawn from the spheres of education, academia, journalism and literature, but what they each share is a proclivity towards the horror movie.
Candyman is written by Jon Towlson, film critic and author of several classic books on horror cinema including both “Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present” and “The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films”. Candyman is his first entry in the Devil’s Advocates series and I would like to think more will surely follow.
There is a great deal of information to unpack and evaluate from Candyman, one of the few films of its era to subvert the genre, and to ask more important socio-political questions about race, gender and class than most of its contemporaries. Towlson manages to handle this in a most assured fashion. His book is insightful, thoroughly researched and written in a readable and yet academic style. The section looking at the Candyman and the Return of the Repressed really gets to the crux of the film’s ideas but it also draws our attention to the different meanings that can be read into the film’s narratives, thus allowing the reader a chance to formulate their own opinions on the issues at play. One thing that is drawn out from all of this is the affinity between the Candyman and Helen, Towlson makes clear that this is at the heart of the film. He calls it a sympathetic indentification between the two. Both are framed as slave and victim, and both are exploited by the capitalist structures of white patriarchy.
The section of the book dealing with urban legends is also of particular interest to revivalists, especially those with an interest in the Urban Wyrd. Towlson digs into those urban legends that were the inspiration for the Candyman character and how both Bernard Rose and Clive Barker were responsible for bringing those urban legends to the table in the creation and development of the film and the character of the Candyman. This returns us to the quote at the top of this review from Kirsten Moana Thompson about the validity of oral storytelling and urban legends as valuable forms of historical memory. Bernard Rose uses those myths or urban legends to engage us with those deeper problems of race, gender and class that pepper the film’s narrative.
The book also looks at how Bernard Rose took Barker’s short story and developed it for cinema, and how it was received by the mainstream media and horror fans alike. There is also a chapter dedicated to the sequels and some of the other films to have dealt with urban legends in the wake of Candyman’s success. I feel it also worth noting that there is a fascinating and informative interview that Towlson conducted with Bernard Rose in 2016 included as an added bonus.
Candyman by Jon Towlson is available to purchase from Amazon priced at £9.99