A celebration of classic folk horror

Night Of The Demon
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If the 50th anniversary of The Wicker Man has opened your eyes to folk horror, then there’s a lot more out there waiting for you.

If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…

Folk horror has been a pinnacle of cinema for a long time. There’s just something so macabre about the archaic trees that stand silent in mysterious rows as darkness and mist wraps around the bark and flitters through the leaves. The sounds of unknown animals howling in the distance. The breaking of twigs as assailants creep ever closer to you.

Even if daylight streaked through the pine, there is still something so spooky about the earth. The endlessness. The unknown. The ancient mysticism of nature. It is all entwinned with fear that is rooted deep within us.

Recently celebrating its 50th anniversary, The Wicker Man (1973) is one of the most famous folk horror films of all time. Robin Hardy’s tale of an isolated island rife with a cult, that lures an unsuspecting police office to his doom, still sends chills down our body. The use of the idyllic island to hide its insidious nature makes it an unforgettable experience, especially towards the end when a jovial song is the backbeat of well, you probably know.

In honour of The Wicker Man’s recent birthday, I’ve decided to look at some of the earliest examples of folk horror.

The term itself wasn’t coined until the 1960s. However, there are some earlier films that have threads and branches of what we deem folk horror.

Alas, sadly, the first ever recorded example of the genre is considered a lost film. Russian filmmaker Vasili Goncharov made a short film Viy (1909). Based on Gogol’s 1835 novella, the story revolves around three impoverished students who try to find lodgings on their long journey home only to find themselves at the mercy of a witch.

Though the silent short film is considered lost, Gogol’s story was adapted in 1967 by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov. This version is considered one of the best horror films from Russia thanks to its in-camera effects and foreboding sense of dread. The story was remade again in 2014 starring Jason Flemyng, though that was not as greatly received.

Speaking of witches, if you like everything Wicca, then why not explore Swedish silent documentary and horror essay Häxan (1922)? Directed by Benjamin Christensen, this is supposed to be an exploration of historical roots and superstitions surrounding the craft. Christensen theorises that neurological disorders and mental health were the root cause of the mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft. As educational as this may be, what Häxan actually is is a bloody good time. Christensen spent a lot of money meticulously recreating the medieval scenes and producing awe-inspiring stage tricks to colour his world of witchcraft.

Unafraid to show sequences of sex and perversion, Christensen weaves a film that is academic, visually stunning, and also terrifying in places. Its dynamism made it a classic and is often referred to as one of the greatest silent films of all time.

Though you could argue that there are facets of folk horror in other silent, pre-code, and 1940s horror films such as the moonlit forests of The Wolf Man (1941), the island mysticism of White Zombie (1932), and the village torn apart by Frankenstein (1931), these were all merely shadows in the woods. It wasn’t really until 1952 where the genre began crafting itself until a corporeal form – though it wouldn’t get a classification until much later.

Finish horror film The White Reindeer (1952) may have a snowier backdrop for its scares yet still is grounded in natural mythology. The story centres on Finnish folklore where a newly married woman seeks the help of a local shaman to inspire. However, she soon gets turned into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. A film that is every bit as haunting as it is enchanting, Erik Blomberg’s work here is a must for avid fans of the genre.

A Professor sees a grim monstrous figure in the trees whilst investigation a murderous cult in Night Of The Demon (1957, pictured). Jacques Tourneur, the famous director of Cat People, returns and directs this British horror. Notable behind the scenes turbulence occurred between Tourneur, co-writer Hal E. Chester, and co-writer Charles Bennett. Bennett wanted to show the demon on the screen whilst others objected. This has led to many different cuts of the film. However, the mood and movie still impacts with a creepy build and maniacal villains at every turn.

Affectionately called The Unholy Trinity, towards the late-1960s and early-1970s there were three British-made films that came out of the woods and helped propel folk horror forward. The first was a delightful Witchfinder General (1968,) and it is a bloody grim affair.

It was directed by Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as the historical and abhorrent figure Matthew Hopkins. The titular villain sought to rid England of sorcery and witchcraft – using every brutal method he could think of. The scenes of blood and torture are truly gruesome, even by today’s standards, as Price holds a terrifying command of the screen.

If there is one thing scarier than mother nature, it is children. 1971’s Blood On Satan’s Claw sees a rural 18th-century village in England get utterly upended by the uncovering of a deformed skull. When the youth start acting peculiar, the children start disappearing and dying by – not only an unknown entity – but their own peers too. It is a gruesome film, culminating in a hard-to-watch climax. But it is no less effective. It is helped by Linda Hayden’s truly astonishing villain turn as the ironically named Angel.

Finally, of course, The Wicker Man (1973.) The film revolves around police officer Sergeant Howie Robin Hardy’s timeless film frightens the steeliest of hearts. Even now, the impending dread that mounts and mounts throughout the movie grips you. Visceral fear seeps through each frame of this film. As Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerise, and a village of grinning, brainwashed cultists, lures Edward Woodward’s Howie to his ultimate doom, the image of the burning titular vessel will be seared in your memory.

So, how about it reader? Dare you enter the woods tonight?

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