This sub-genre of horror is enjoying a bit of a Renaissance in the early 2020s, no doubt fueled in part by one of the most horrifying things a 21st century teenager can conceive of—being somewhere without cell service and no wi-fi. As the name suggests, the horror in these movies is based on folklore, most likely observed by outsiders, aka “city folk,” who find themselves in a remote village or isolated community and are forced to observe or confront the backwards superstitions of these “simple people.” Of course, the folklore elements in the movie is inevitably real, or treated as such by the villagers, who just so happen to need a sacrifice to whatever dark entity they are beholden to for a bountiful harvest, and no one will miss the young hitchhikers who don’t believe this stuff is real anyways.
I don’t quite know if Folk Horror needs its own definition—certainly, in fiction, there’s so much of this kind of thing from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard to Manly Wade Wellman and Dennis Wheately and so many others, for years everyone I ever knew simply called it “horror” or sometimes “supernatural horror.” In film, however, it’s less omnipresent, first showing up in the 1960s and 1970s before the maypoles were abandoned entirely and chainsaws were picked up instead. It may even be possible to throw too large a net over the concept—for instance, would The Blair Witch Project qualify as Folk Horror? I think so.
Nevertheless, there’s a minor renaissance happening in horror circles in the production of numerous movies utilizing these specific narrative building blocks; paganism, witchcraft, sacrifice, occult rites, and the like. Many of the better films appear on other lists, like the Top 5 Witch movies, but these movies are known primarily for being folk horror forward, if you will. These movies may or may not scare you senseless, depending on your adherence to the Old Ways yourself, or whether or not you’re frightened by people dancing naked in the woods (hey, it was the 60s, after all), but the essential elements are all on display here (along with some boobs—sorry!) so that you can identify modern folk horror movies by their subject matter.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
A police detective is summoned by letter to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. When he shows up (by seaplane, no less) he’s told the girl doesn’t exist. Poking about town, he figures out two things pretty quick; namely, that the girl did exist, and these villagers are nutty—they are full blown pagan, like old school Celtic druids. The laird of the isle, played by Christopher Lee, has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why this is so, but it only enrages the staunch detective, who is most emphatically a Christian, and finds all of this blasphemous. His investigation takes him deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the community, even as the villagers make preparations for their annual May Day ceremony…
This movie is considered one of the foundational pillars of folk horror and sports an impressive pedigree, not the least of which is Christopher Lee as Lord Summersisle, the head pagan. I’m not sure if this is as scary as it once was, considering how far removed we are from hippie sub-culture, the Summer of Love, and the Manson Family atrocities, which is part of what The Wicker Man taps into (and it might well be part of the many reasons why the remake with Nic Cage failed miserably).
Certain elements scenes in The Wicker Man now seem very dated, but there’s a horrific turn of events, coupled with the bizarre forms some of the occult rituals and symbols take. The Wicker Man itself was a real, practiced thing at one time, and over time the ritual of burning the offerings have come back; you can find more than one such ceremony (minus the horror and creepy occult sensibilities) with a little creative Google-fu. The Wicker Man is required watching if you want to get in on folk horror at the ground floor. Try to keep an open mind during the ending that think of the outcome as a case of tables being turned for once.
4. Witchfinder General (1968)
A seventeenth century witch-hunter named Matthew Hopkins as assumed the mantle of “Witchfinder General” for the purpose of ferreting out those suspected of heresy and witchcraft, all of which was taking place during the general chaos of the English Civil War. His cohort, John Stearne, is less pious than Hopkins but no less opportunistic and covetous of payment. In the course of their “official” duties, they show up, make accusations, perform some tests, torture a few people, and then set the witches on fire, or hang them—and then they collect their fee from the local magistrate. When a local village priest is accused, his niece acts on his behalf, literally paying for his life with her body. This doesn’t sit well with the young British soldier she’s betrothed to, and he sets off on a trail of vengeance to find those who wronged her.
This was director Michael Reeve’s third and final movie, and a more storied and well-documented production you’ll not likely find. Reeves didn’t want Vincent Price in his movie and told him so, to his face. Their on-the-set feud was hard to believe. At one point, Price threw his credits in his face and told him he’s made over eighty movies; what has Reeves done? Reeves answered, “I’ve made three good ones.” Ouch. The film was cut up and released in America as The Conqueror Worm, with a little of the Edgar Allan Poe poetry tacked onto the front. Don’t bother with this version.
This may be a hard sell for some. Witchfinder General is more historical than horror—based on a real person and his exploits—but it is quite horrific, and Vincent Price is about as unlikeable as you’ve ever seen him, with not an ounce of the impish glee he usually evinces. It’s a dour film, but it’s got a message imbedded in it, and considering how close the film was to the Red Scare of the 1950s, you can figure it out pretty quick. The film makes me angry, watching the villagers, watching their neighbors being tortured, burned, hanged. The horror lies in what is not being said, what is not being done, and in the end, the toll it takes on those who survive it.
3. The Ritual (2017)
Four friends set out on a hike in the Swedish wilderness, in tribute to their friend who is brutally murdered at the beginning of the movie. They make a shrine to their friend, toast him, and say their goodbyes. The next day, one of the campers twists his ankle and they decide to try to get back to civilization by cutting through a dense forest. Evidently, none of them have ever watched a horror movie before in their life.
The movie wastes no time going off the rails, with one thing after another piling on to the men, wearing them down, getting on their last nerve. There’s a lot of shouting in The Ritual as old wounds are opened and new ones are made. Likewise, every time they find something odd, weird, or abandoned in the forest, they can’t stop themselves from choosing the most wrong thing to do.
The Ritual isn’t just about survival; there’s something in the woods, and people that worship it, and it’s big and terrifying and don’t worry, you’ll see it soon enough. The myths and folklore th movie pulls from is Norse, but it’s not all big monsters. There’s some psychological hallucinations in play as well run the gamut from horrible to horrific. I wouldn’t call the ending of The Ritual a happy one, but compared to a lot of other folk horror movies, it’s downright cheerful.
2. Midsommar (2019)
Dani just lost her sister and her parents, and her boyfriend, Christian and his two friends, Mark and Josh decide to travel to Sweden to take place in an annual midsummer festival in a remote rural commune at the invitation of Pelle, who grew up in the commune. The men are all anthropology students and are enthralled by the rituals and ceremonies within the framework of the festival. But when the group and a couple of other outsiders witness a ritual suicide, Dani decides that it’s time to head out, but she’s talked down, and then she’s plied with drugs, and then things get weirder and stranger from there.
This is the face of contemporary folk horror. Reviews were all over the place on this; some people thought it was a dark comedy. Some people thought it was stupid and boring. But if you are a child of civilization, and if you can’t stand the idea of being apart from your cell phone, or being surrounded by strangers, or feeling both welcome and completely out of place at the same time…Almost every extant tenet of folk horror has been updated and made more bizarre, more creepy, and more outright sinister. These people are nice, but they aren’t a stand-in for hippies, not at all.
Florence Pugh, as Dani, has to carry the movie and she does a great job, even if we have to occasionally leap into another point-of-view in order to witness a gruesome murder of some sort. Will Poulter is perfectly cast as the asshole American, and it’s great to see William Jackson Harper outside of his The Good Place casting as Chidi Anagonye. I never thought Sweden was scary, until I watched Midsommar. There’s a director’s cut that weighs in an nearly three hours. Start with the theatrical cut, first, and see if you’re into watching more of it.
1. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
A young man finds a skull, half-buried in a field of freshly-turned earth, and inside the skull is a single eye in the socket…and so begins a prolonged fever-dream as the children of the village fall, one by one, under the thrall of a young girl who is resuscitating a devil, if not THE devil, starting with the deformed skull, and moving on to the claw (which is very active, let me assure you), and then patches of fur-covered skin, which the children are cultivating on their own bodies. A series of bizarre and disturbing sequences culminate in a showdown between good and evil in an abandoned and now defiled church.
This is ground-zero for what we consider to be Folk Horror and it has a little something for everyone in it. It’s a historical story, Christian in upbringing, but not so far removed from the past that the heathen ways are unrecognizable. Of course, the kids are creepy, and with good reason—their leader, the ironically-named girl Angel, is in charge of the demonic jigsaw puzzle and borrows a tactic or two from the Salem witch trials, accusing adults of malfeasance because she knows she’ll be believed.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw was shot on a small budget, using local settings, so it’s got a grounded and authentic look to it. There’s a lot of hair-raising (forgive me) scenes, including a rape, some ritual killings, and sparse but effective use of the various body parts of the devil. There’s also a welcome lack of hippies, which makes the movie feel a little less dated. It’s weird, and if you’re wanting a deep-dive into folk horror, it’s also required viewing.