One of the highlights of last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Robert Eggers‘ 17th-century folk horror flick The Witch is now scaring the pants off audiences during its theatrical run. The film falls into the subgenre Folk Horror, a largely British off-shoot of the horror genre exploring the urban inhabitant’s unease about the countryside, where spiteful and superstitious bumpkins are still in the thrall of demonic forces.
The most interesting aspect of Folk Horror is that the existence of the supernatural—whether it’s God, the Devil, or anything in between—is largely beside the point. What matters is whether the human characters believe, and how they behave having accepted or rejected the notion of something beyond our earthly plane. If The Witch made you question the therapeutic benefits of long walks in the woods, you may also take interest in these folk horror classics.
1. Night of the Demon
It’s fitting that the first film on this list is an adaptation of an M.R. James story, Casting the Runes, since the Cambridge scholar often used common folk horror themes in his tales—typically featuring a privileged city dweller visiting the countryside of his own volition, and through curiosity, greed, or sense of duty becoming embroiled in supernatural goings-on.
In Jacques Tourneur’s masterful adaptation, the protagonist becomes American psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), who flies into England to expose Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGuiness), an eminent occultist and suspected head of a satanic cult. Thin-skinned and erudite, Karswell’s method of dispatching with skeptics is to surreptitiously pass them a runic inscription. If the victim can’t pass on the curse, a demon will appear to claim them.
Night of the Demon is pure class. Pacy, witty, intelligent and spooky, the film would be arguably scarier if producer Hal E. Chester had respected the director’s wishes to leave the Demon to the viewer’s imagination. A journeyman director, Tourneur had already proven his ability to generate chills via the power of suggestion in his earlier classic, Cat People. Yet the suspense the film generates make us both fear and look forward to a rewatch.
2. The Witches
In her last film role, former Oscar winner Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a school teacher recuperating after a run-in with a witch doctor in Africa. She gets back in the saddle by taking a new post in a sleepy English village—surely nothing can go wrong there, right?
Campy, quaint and dated, The Witches is about as scary as Hocus Pocus, but is worth a watch for folk horror completists. It effectively pinpoints the traditional start of the cycle, and is an interesting precursor to The Wicker Man (perhaps the most popular Folk Horror film), with the protagonist’s journey covering similar beats—a village in the grip of a powerful cult leader, action taking place in broad daylight, and an accumulation of sinister detail building towards a demented final act.
3. Whistle and I’ll Come to You & A Warning to the Curious
The works of M.R. James were adapted by the BBC in a sequence of one-off TV productions; Whistle and I’ll Come to You in the late Sixties and A Warning to the Curious in the early Seventies. Both use East Anglia’s geographical desolate coast to create a chilling backdrop of isolation and threat. These excellent adaptations are acutely eerie, following two solitary academics out to the seaside, where they uncover ancient relics that release ghostly figures who relentlessly pursue them.
4. The Devil Rides Out
This dapper adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel finds Christopher Lee in a rare heroic role as Nicholas the Duc de Richleau. Here the Duke rescues a friend from a satanic cult, led by the dastardly Charles Gray. The Devil Rides Out rattles along at the pace of a Fu Manchu adventure, and while it’s a slight stretch to label it as folk horror—especially as the rural aspect is largely absent—Gray’s omnipotent cult leader shares similarities with the other well-educated, wealthy, manipulative and deadly demagogues of the genre.
5. The Witchfinder General
Legendary ham Vincent Price gives his finest and most restrained performance as the despicable Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed Witchfinder General, who orchestrated the execution of hundreds of women condemned as witches in order to line his pockets. The possible existence of witchcraft doesn’t matter in Reeves’ bleak and depressing vision of one man’s avarice, and its themes are as relevant today as they ever were—a man in a position of authority plays on the prejudices and fears of the ignorant to generate hatred towards a minority, milking the hysteria for personal gain. Sound like anyone you’ve seen in the news lately?
6. The Blood on Satan’s Claw
This grim, rural nightmare is a beautiful slice of occultist schlock. Set in early 18th century England, a local yokel unearths the decimated corpse of the Devil, unleashing an escalating series of violent events throughout the local community.
It turns that out the Devil is using the parish’s youngsters to grow new skin, fur and body parts for himself, excised from the host by the diabolic nymph Angel (Linda Hayden) in orgiastic ceremonies involving mutilation, rape, and murder. The film provides a twist on the usual Folk Horror standards, with the stern patriarch of the film acting as a positive force, seeking to rid his neighbourhood of evil for the good of the community rather than lining his own pockets.
7. The Wicker Man
The Wicker Man was poorly received on its initial release, but it has grown in stature over the years to become a cult masterpiece. It’s a classic battle of ideologies, as the humourless, virginal Christian policeman Howie (Edward Woodward) ventures to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. His inquiries are thwarted at every turn by the cheerfully unhelpful locals, living in a Paganistic idyll overseen by the louche Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).
8. Picnic at Hanging Rock
There are few true examples of folk horror from beyond Britain’s shores, and the vast expanses of the Australian outback are a stark contrast to the usual bucolic locations found in the genre. Weir’s ethereal, stunningly beautiful oddity is a mystery without a solution, following a group of school girls who explore the titular outcrop one lazy afternoon before vanishing without a trace.
While no cause for the disappearance is given, the strange rumbling sounds on the soundtrack during the girls’ exploration suggests that their burgeoning sexuality has awoken a primeval force within the rock itself.
9. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project works as a folk horror because it plays on the unease of city slickers out in the sticks, and remains ambivalent about whether the witch exists or not. It plays on the primal fear of being lost in the woods, and the real horror is the breakdown of civilities between the group as hunger, cold, and terror sets in.
There’s a sense that the three documentary filmmakers investigating a gruesome legend bring their misfortune upon themselves—they went looking for the witch and not the other way around. The found footage format puts us right in there with the protagonists, fearfully peering into the dark to see if something’s lurking in the trees.
10. Kill List
Ben Wheatley’s best movie to date is a dangerous mash up of nihilistic gangster tropes and cabalistic horror. The easy soundbite is Get Carter meets The Wicker Man, and while Kill List is a worthy successor to both cultural touchstones, it’s also something more unsettling and elusive. It’s a folk horror in reverse, as the esoteric machinations of a strange cult worm their way into the brittle status quo of a career hitman, restlessly ensconced in his home before his best friend approaches him with the usual “one last job.” The depth and perversity of the cult’s transgressions is never made clear, and the viewer is drawn into an ethical Bermuda Triangle—weird things are happening, and your moral compass spins wildly without ever finding a place to lock on to.