8 Twisted Folk Horror Films [May Day Festivities]
It’s time to celebrate May Day so don you flower crown, throw on your comfiest dancing shoes and prepare for the Spring Festival. Despite attempts to appropriate the festivities of May Day the celebrations still hold close to their nature worshipping beginnings, with celebrations of flowers, fertility, and its Pagan roots. To celebrate this day it’s time to look at a genre inspired by rituals, nature and religious unsettling, Folk Horror.
The Folk Horror genre seemed to really take off in the 60’s, helped by the ‘swinging 60’s’ free love and Hippie trends of the time and the fears those outside the counterculture had. It seems to have seen a resurgence recently in this hard to pin down sub-genre that covers folk tales, religion and the occult, nature striking back and fears of the ‘outsider’. Folk Horror is a wide and vast sub genre that I have found myself drawn to in it’s recent resurgence, but I am no expert, just a growing fan. With that in mind here are 8 of my picks for great Folk Horror to watch in celebration of May Day.
Witchfinder General (1968)
It helps to start at the beginning, and despite not being the first film classified as Folk Horror, Witchfinder General is the first in the ‘Unholy Trinity’ that helped define and establish the genre in the Horror community. Based on the novel of the same name by Ronald Basset which explores witch-hunting and the terrors of an extreme religious past. The unjustified accusations and extreme torture sequences that follow are sadistic and demonise the corruption of religious power, it is the corruption of men being shown at full force through Vincent Price’s diabolical Hopkins. It may not be historically accurate but it is affectingly brutal and doesn’t hold back on it’s message and violence.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
The Second in the ‘Unholy Trinity’ The Blood on Satan’s Claw moves into the occult side of Folk Horror. After a young man discovers a strange and deformed skull whilst working the lands of the countryside, paranoia and superstition take over the people of the town and lead to the corruption of its children. Offsetting the idyllic beauty of English countryside with the fear of Satanism, the Devil rises in the ruins of an abandoned church building and transforms the children into demonically possessed puppets for his bidding. Don’t let the flower crowns fool you, these children are under the control of something truly horrific.
The Wicker Man (1973)
One of the most well known and well regarded Folk Horrors, and the third film to complete the ‘Unholy Trinity’, The Wicker Man includes May Day celebrations, an island of pagans and a missing child. When devout Christian, Sergeant Howie, is sent to Summerisle to investigate a missing girl he finds himself appalled by the proceedings there and begins to suspect that these nature worshipping locals are planning to sacrifice an innocent to help their crops grow. He’s more correct than he can ever understand and it leads to one of the most influential and mesmerizing conclusions in a Horror movie. If you like butt-slap dancing, wild costuming and the ever wonderful Christopher Lee, you will love this film.
Kill List (2011)
Ben Wheatley has his hand firmly in the Folk Horror world and often explores nature, cults and religion. His first Horror film is Kill List, a psychological crime horror that descends into folklore and Pagan rituals in a brutal and intense way. Jay is a former soldier who is finding it difficult to get back into the normal world and is running out of money, so when his friend offers him a job he agrees, unfortunately this is a contract killing like no other. Going from Domestic Drama, to dark Crime and then landing in full blown terrifying Folk Horror Kill List twists and turns with torturous delight.
The Witch (2015)
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? The subtitle for this film is ‘A New England Folktale’ and that is one of the best ways to describe this slow burn, stunningly aesthetic Folk Horror. The Witch is about a cast out family who try to set themselves up in the woods and survive the winter whilst worrying that the children are being manipulated by an evil presence in the trees. Tragedy befalls this Puritan family and the eldest daughter, Thomasin, becomes the scapegoat (pun 100% intended) for these horrors. The repression of extreme religion is explored on both ends of the spectrum and culminates in an orgiastic and bloodied climax.
The Wailing (2016)
Folk Horror seems to have its roots in the English countryside, or at least Western sensibilities of the rural life and the fears of religions that aren’t Christian or Catholic, but The Wailing resets this folklore in Easter myth. This Korean film deals with a mysterious outbreak that leads to severe violence from the infected. Faith, belief and superstition are explored with eerie nightmare scenes and village wide paranoia. Similar to Kill List everything starts out more in the Crime Thriller genre and descends into the folklore and supernatural elements as the film progresses. A moody, beautiful and tense masterpiece.
The Ritual (2017)
Folk Horror meets the ‘Cabin in the Woods’ sub-genre in The Ritual. After the tragic murder of their friend, Rob, his friends Phil, Dom, Hutch & Luke commit to going on a camping trip to honour his memory and deal with their guilt around his death. Luke especially has a lot to deal with, having been in the liquor store when Rob was killed and failing to protect him. Whilst on the trip they take refuge in a cabin after one of them is injured on the hike and this is when the folklore nightmare begins. The men begin to experience nightmares that lead them to believe there’s something supernatural happening and climaxes with a deadly ritualistic cult. It’s introspective and terrifying and also has one of the most beautifully horrifying monster reveals of any modern movie.
I have written a few times about Ari Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommar and my absolute love for it as a film about grief, nature, community and the female experience. Dani has just experienced extreme trauma in losing her parents and sister in a murder suicide. Whilst dealing with this, and her strained relationship with her boyfriend Christian, she travels to Sweden with him and a group of his male friends to witness a midsummer festival, something that only happens once every 90 years. Midsommar holds close the traditions of May Day with the crowning of a queen and fertility rituals, but it’s in the horrors of grief and the exploration of the cultist community that this film shines.
Of course this is not an extensive list and there are many more incredible Folk Horror films out there to be discovered. The resurgence in the genre seems to be linking to the rise in Eco-Horror as well with a twist towards the fight back of nature. Here’s to more cults, rituals and twisted celebrations of nature to come from the Horror genre.