I can say with absolute confidence that my favorite horror subgenre has to be Folk Horror. Culty stuff is great, but a cult alone is not enough to elevate a movie to Folk Horror status. Look at, for example, The Sacrament or Holy Ghost People–fine movies in their own right, definitely cult-centered, but just as definitely not Folk Horror.
What’s the difference? Well, one big one is sacrifice. A cult may well engaged in some kind of sacrifice, but Folk Horror specifically makes that sacrifice part of a ritual, usually pagan, often ancient, and frequently in support of fertility, maintaining a specific culture/way of life, and/or worship of some very old god(s). Even better, Folk Horror is enjoying a small resurgence with, of course, Midsommar.
Arguably, there would have been no Midsommar without Robin Hardy’s masterpiece, The Wicker Man–the major forerunner of practically all folk horror. If you’ve somehow never seen it, do yourself a favor, stop what you’re doing, and watch it. Then we can talk about 5 Lesser Known Folk Horror Movies.
#5 The Lair Of The White Worm
No way could I put together a list like this without Ken Russell. Based on a lesser known Bram Stoker novel, The Lair Of The White Worm tells the story of a Scottish archaeology student (pre-Dr. Who Peter Capaldi sporting some seriously Roger Daltrey/Tommy-lookin’ locks) unearthing a huge snake skull. This puts him in contact with Lord James d’Ampton (a boyish Hugh Grant) whose ancestry is somehow connected to all this. The movie is psychedelic, fantastical, and certainly owes some allegiance to Lovecraft’s “The Rats In The Walls” and Stephen King’s “Jerusalem’s Lot.”
#4 The Wicker Tree
You don’t hear a helluvalot about Robin Hardy’s 2011 followup to The Wicker Man. It’s not really a sequel so much as a companion to the original and delves into similar ideas. This time, an evangelical Texas couple journeys into the Scottish Lowlands to do some soul savin’ amongst the residents. Naturally this takes place during the local May Day celebration, and the salvation attempts meet with hostile resistance then go completely sideways fast. Not quite as effective over all as The Wicker Man, but The Wicker Tree’s final act is just about as bleak and disturbing. It’s also possible that the end of the movie has some resonance with Midsommar.
#3 The Borderlands
A somewhat recent addition to the subgenre, and the only found footage entry, 2013’s The Borderlands follows 3 Vatican investigators sent to a 13th Century church in Devon to check out reports of the supernatural. These events do indeed manifest themselves with increasing intensity, and it turns out that, surprise of surprises, the church was in fact built over the site of a temple to an unknown pagan deity. Oops. I won’t give away any of the other twists and turns other than to say that there is a distinctly Lovecraftian twist in store.
I’ve reviewed this at length before, but it’s certainly worth a spot on this list. Aired in 1970, Robin Redbreast is the earliest of these five entries. It’s the tale of Norah who flees London for the southern English countryside after her relationship falls apart. Here she catches the attention of some very strange locals, one of whom she sleeps with and conceives a child. Norah becomes convinced that the locals plan to sacrifice her and take the child. The final shot is a simple framing of the four locals against the house’s stonework, but the effect is downright chilling.
Children Of The Corn, Kill List, The Owl Service, Penda’s Fen
#1 The Blood On Satan’s Claw
I debated whether or not to put this on the list at all. Anyone who’s familiar with The Wicker Man has probably seen or at least heard about The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and lemme tell ya, it’s a weird one. Predating The Wicker Man by a couple of years, this movie possibly ushered in the age of folk horror. It could be contended that this claim should be made for Robin Redbreast, but The Blood On Satan’s Claw arguably had a wider release and audience. A farmer uncovers a one-eyed skull in his field, spinning the surrounding village into turmoil and disarray. Widescale possession, a Black Mass, murder, weird patches of fur showing up on people’s bodies–trippy stuff.
And there you go, a decent little Folk Horror primer if I do say so. As ever, drop me your favorites in the Comments.