Come And See: A Horror Masterpiece?

Very few films are worthy of the descriptor “masterpiece.” It’s not to say that there aren’t many good films. Far from it! I’d like to think that all the films I’ve covered here on VL were at least good, if not great. But how many films have you seen that were genuinely profound?

Moreover, how many horror films are masterpieces in the most commonly understood sense. Horror fans might agree that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece in the genre, but you aren’t likely find that one topping the “best of” lists from The American Film Institute. But what about the outliers? Those films that sit outside clean lines of description, that bend genre and film making conventions?

Come and See, directed by Elem Klimov in 1985, in a true genre-bending masterpiece. It is a film that uses the best artistic direction of an era to achieve genuinely horrifying ends. Set in Belarus in 1943, Come and See tells the story of Flyora, an early teen dragged into the Hell of World War 2 on the Eastern Front. Klimov’s portrayal of Nazi atrocities in Soviet Belarus are based on true events, and while the film is not gory in the sense of something like Hostel, it is unflinching in it’s depiction of genuine destruction.

But there are plenty of war films, right? If we are measuring realistic depictions of violence as one yardstick, is Saving Private Ryan a horror film? But violence is not the single end of horror. In order for a film to be a Horror Film, it should evoke feelings of dread or apprehension. At the risk of a tautology, a Horror Film must Horrify. Come and See delivers in this arena like almost no other film. It is a film that is genuinely beautiful and revolting in equal measure.

Klimov made several clever decisions in the creation of Come and See. Following the horror axiom that “what the audience does not see is more scary than what they can see,” the film is not a barrage of one-note gore. Often the most affecting moments occur only briefly, barely on screen for a minute. And when Klimov’s lens does linger, it serves to drive home what our protagonist is forced to handle. Aleksei Kravchenko’s portrayal of Flyora is, for my money, one of the greatest on-screen performances of it’s decade. Klimov uses many tightly framed shot’s of Flyora reacting to the world around him, his face contorting into a mask of sharp disgust or mute terror. The hyper-realism of the incoming bomb raids becomes justified with the surreal.

No joke – a scene of a boy crawling through mud genuinely nauseated me.

A recurring image throughout this film is the presence of German reconnaissance aircraft passing over a scene. Klimov simply does not use the sound of the engines (which would be scary enough,) but blends into it a single droning tone that lingers over the scene. The aircraft ceases to be a mere engine of war. It becomes a harbinger of existential threat, a very real portent of doom. This Lynchian blending of audio manipulation into diegetic sound into a unstylized world is incredibly unnerving.

 “I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

  • William Tecumseh Sherman

Come and See is more than a mere collection of horrifying images. There are more than enough films that provide that sort of viewing. Instead, Come and See is a slow burn. It seeks to illustrate the loss of individual innocence and the corruption of a world. It is not enough to see war in a realistic way, and this film seeks to crush the thought that “Total War” can ever be noble. ((An actual note I took during my viewing of the film: “Is it possible to feel like you are committing a war crime by watching a movie?”)  It seems so obvious that attempted genocide and wholesale destruction merely degrades the soul of all involved. But genocides didn’t stop happening with World War Two. Come and See offers a believable proxy experience to brave cinephiles and horror fans. It is not to be missed, underestimated, or forgotten.

Halloween Horror Movie Binge: Some Practical Considerations by Professor L. Yochum of the Villains Live University

To the student body of VLU…it’s nearly time.

As you know, it’s nearly October. And as well know, October is the month long celebration of all things spooky. Speaking personally,  I find it endlessly satisfying to spend the month immersed up to the metaphorical gills in horror. This time of year clearly gives us the best candies, best decorations, and most enjoyable music.

But a sincere horror binge is not something that can be done willy-nilly. While I might personally bristle at the thought of someone telling me how to GET SPOOKY, it does pay to have a plan. I therefore have a proposal. I would like to lay down some simple guidelines for the coming season.

Media binging is obviously not a new concept. Since the arrival of wide-spread on-demand media, many prefer to not absorb media in episodic format. Consider for a moment how many times you or a loved one have spent an entire weekend watching one show. Binging is applicable to film franchises, premier TV, even podcasts! But Halloween media is more than mere movies. Halloween media is multi-disciplinary, multi-platform media.  As such, our approach must be multi-faceted.  

 

Part One: Right Environment

When is it appropriate to watch a horror movie, much less many horror movies? Should the room be dark? And should you have your phone nearby? The greatest minds of the 20th and early 21st century have been debating this since the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (My intensive, evidence-based research of Google has shown that the first Blu-Ray of The Cabinet in 1955 caused quite a furor.)  A comprehensive recipe for optimal binge-watch environments is outside the scope of this brief lecture. However we should acknowledge some possibilities for this upcoming season.

For example: should a film prominently featuring daytime scenes be watched during the day or the night? Or whether or not snacks/beverages will improve a film going experience. Silly as such small contrivances may seem, they are questions worth addressing.

Many horror purists, such as The Scaredy Cats podcast, have put down the rules that horror movies must be watched at night, uninterrupted, without the presence of phones. And while I respect the expertise of the podcast’s hosts, I respectfully argue that this approach is ultimately incorrect. All of this is good for a singular film, but it is not feasible if you are planning on watching multiple films in a single sitting. I would argue that the film should match the environment as best as possible.  Black and White classics such as the original Night of The Living Dead are best absorbed at night, where the desaturated colors are easier on the eyes, and immersive in their tones.  Phantasm, on the other hand, lends itself to early evening on the account of it’s surreal, hallucinatory tone.

And to the point of refreshments, I wholeheartedly endorse their consumption during film during any film, and especially during a binge. The longer your experience goes, the greater your need for supplemental nutrition will become. Furthermore Halloween binging is a pre-written excuse for consumption of Halloween candy and themed cocktails or sodas. Again: multi-disciplinary and multi-media.

 

Part Two: Franchise vs. Curated List

So what are we watching? Astute students of horror will know the stress of attempting to have the right films for the occasion.  So should you give in to the simple desire to pick a pre-arranged franchise of films, or should you do something more personally intensive?

This decision seems to be largely a matter of the time you have available to freely dedicate. For instance, one could easily spend nearly half a month dedicated the Halloween franchise.  At 13 films, this offers you a seemingly simple guidepost.  Or if you want this time frame more compacted, there are 10 Hellraiser films.  That is an easy way to spread a massive dose of horror over a mere handful of days.

However, that approach has it’s flaws. Academic communities have raged with argument over whether or not Halloween 3 should be included in the canon of the Halloween franchise. And that says nothing of the religious schisms caused by the Hellraiser entries that de-emphasize Doug Bradley as Pinhead.  

As an alternative, curated lists of films are an option with profound flexibility.  One could easily create a list such as “Roger Corman Productions,” or “Slashers from the 70s and 80s only.” This list approach offers a profound degree of personalization options. The exchange, however, is in that it requires time and effort to create these sorts of lists, whereas film franchises have strict guidelines.

 

Part Three: 31 for 31

Arguably the greatest challenge available for horror fans is the 31 Days of Halloween, or sometimes called “31 for 31.” Put simply, the goal is to watch 31 horror movies in the month of October, potentially watching a single horror film every day of the month of October. Like the pre-hibernation eating of bears to the onset of Winter, this approach offers horror fans the ability to carry a dose of Spooky with them throughout the remainder of the year.

But 31 for 31 is a daunting challenge.  It requires dedication and grit.  Students of VLU are no doubt accustomed to the rigors of serious horror study. (See my maddening discussion of Folk Horror, if you have somehow shaken off the trauma of that initial experience by now…and stop emailing me to pay your therapy bills.  The Court’s Orders are clear in their rejection of your claims.)  The decision to watch this amount of horror is reserved for either the foolhardy or most iron willed.

As such, your trusted professor has decided to undertake this challenge.  I set down some simple parameters for my attempt.

  • The films on the list must represent a broad stroke of genres and time periods.
  • The list should be a mix of familiar favorites and films I’ve never seen.
  • Roughly half of the list must be at the suggestion of my most esteemed colleagues.
  • No direct sequels. Thematic sequels are acceptable, but numbered/titled sequels are stictly forbidden.

As such, I present the Professor Yochum 31 for 31 Challenge of 2020.  This list is in a mostly random order, and presented as a way to cover as much ground in a month as is possible.

  1. Colour Out Of Space
  2. Midsommar
  3. Event Horizon
  4. Videodrome
  5. The Platform
  6. Audition
  7. Circle
  8. Suspiria
  9. Inferno
  10. The Spiral
  11. Halloween
  12. #Alive
  13. Castle Freak
  14. Nosferatu
  15. Mandy
  16. The Mummy (the Boris Karloff original)
  17. Dark Water
  18. The Ninth Gate
  19. Tigers Are Not Afraid
  20. Phantasm
  21. Chopping Mall
  22. The Autopsy of Jane Doe
  23. The Witch
  24. The Wicker Man
  25. Night Of The Living Dead (original)
  26. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
  27. As Above, So Below
  28. Ju-On: The Grudge
  29. The Changling
  30. Horse Girl
  31. Hell House LLC

So, to our dear students, we here at VLU look forward to hearing how you intend to spend the month of October.  Please remember to share your notes with fellow students.

Incident In Ghostland Poster

Trauma, Bonding: Incident in a Ghostland and the Horror of the Problematic

(Content Warning: Slight Discussion of Sexual Violence)

A single mother and her two teenage daughters, Beth and Vera, move to an inherited home in the country. Within hours of their arrival, they are brutally assaulted by unknown assailants. Years after the incident, Beth returns to the site of their assault. This sort of bare-bones description could lead to a boring, droll film. Incident in a Ghostland (which we will abbreviate IIAGL) is anything but droll. Fans of the New French Extremity and Torture Porn subgenres will know why.  IIAGL is directed by Pascal Laugier, perhaps best known in English-speaking audiences for his directorial work in Martyrs. IIAGL is a brutal, psychological piece of work.

So, for the record, I am not typically a fan of Torture Porn. I find it to be a subgenre that is too rooted in sexual violence and wanton mayhem for me to really appreciate.  But that is not to say that the subgenre as a whole is without merit. IIAGL does draw from this well, which will be addressed later.

It’s important to note that IIAGL is not precisely a straightforward film of home invasion. Nor does it merely wallow in gore. Instead, the film leans in more towards the psychology of extreme shock. IIAGL deals instead with the surreality of a shocking incident.Try to put yourself into the shoes of the protagonists: you’re young. You’ve been uprooted to new house that you wouldn’t willingly visit, let alone inhabit. And in the middle of stress and annoyance of “move,” you are suddenly attacked. You’ve been overpowered by unknown people who clearly have on thing on their mind: violence.

No adult could brush this off, much less a young teen. Add into this hellbroth sexual assault and it’s impossible to say how things might look or seem. Beth and Vera are fighting for their very lives. Asking them to craft a coherent narrative out of this situation is not only unrealistic, but also obscene.

The physicality of IIAGL is absolutely noteworthy. Horror movies are known for being physically demanding, and this film takes the cake in that regard. The violence is direct and shocking.  Laugier’s camera does not pull away from most of the violence, lingering long enough for the audience to see the end result of every blow, of every attack. It seems perverse to use the word “lovingly” to describe the applied filmcraft of these scenes. And yet, the attention to detail paid in these moments, from audio to the actual reaction of the actors, is genuinely amazing.

Where the film loses me is in the very tropes of Torture Porn. It’s use of doll imagery and attempts at perverting childhood symbolism can feel a touch ham-handed. Moreover, the portrayal of the attackers (dealing with non cis-hetero presentations and mentally challenged) can feel cheap. The use of the “depraved crossdresser” and “violent mentally handicapped” villains are not new. They often are used merely to shock. There is an element to this sort of characterization that does, in a way, add to the plot. Earlier I mentioned the surreality of IIAGL’s violence and trauma.  These elements might be cheap in a different environment, but they add a further level of disorientation to an already mind-bending film.

“We should have stayed in the city.”

So are these problematic elements necessarily bad? That depends on how they are used inside the context of horror.  In a recent video on the Scaredy Cats Youtube Channel the question is asked: “Is Horror Too Problematic To Enjoy?” The video illustrates a point I have often felt about Horror. Much of the genre deals with subject matter that is outside of polite society. Violence, the fears of the unknown, the monster that might be in the woods, all of these are concepts not well received at the colloquial dinner table. Horror, be it in print or video, has long been a place to discuss and explore the feelings too disgusting to handle in everyday life.  Moreover this sort of media can use the more marginalized members of our society as convenient foils to our fears. Unfortunately we live in a society that has been slow in accepting others outside the supposed “norm.” Media has thus been equally slow in addressing these issues.

So is IIAGL too problematic? Does it go for the cheapest routes of the genre instead of delving into the complexities of human relations?  My answer is a resounding “No!” At it’s heart, IIAGL is a story of strained relationships, of sibling rivalry, and the bonds that develop in crisis. Beth and  Vera are thrust into an unrelenting nightmare of isolation and degradation, and are forced to save themselves by saving each other. A less competently written script or director could easily cheapen this story to mere titillation, but instead opts for a higher approach.

Granted, that approach is soaked in blood, but it’s no less valid than other ways of representation. Horror is not supposed to be comforting. And even when a decision feels potentially cheap it is still living up to it’s promise: to horrify.

IIAGL is not a film for everyone. If you are a fan of kinetic, nerve shredding horror, it offers a lot. This audience may not be as broad as the slashers of old. It’s far closer spiritually to a movie like Angst than something like Midsommar. And yet, IIAGL does offer a heady punch. It’s not a film for people who just want jumpscares or a simple bloodbath. IIAGL is for a braver, darker sort of audience, one that likes their fear spiked with the unsettling surreal.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

 

Seances and Lo-Fi Aesthetics: Host

A common joke I use to justify impulse purchases and essentially having dressed down since March of this year is “The isolation of a Pandemic does strange things to people.” And for many of us, one strange behavior we’ve all had to engage in this the use of digital mediums to talk to friends and loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong; services like Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Facetime have provided a much-needed way to stay in touch with people. It’s not as good as being there in person. But in an era where face-to-face indoor contact can have disastrous results, people are taking what they can get. But it goes deeper than mere hangout times. Industries that have previously required in-person interactions are now having to navigate a world mediated by webcams. The film industry has been especially set back. Hollywood’s releases seem to have slowed to a mere trickle compared to previous years. Movie theaters are locking their doors, and streaming services like Netflix are now having to manage release schedules like never before.

Enter Host, a Shudder exclusive film that has entered the horror zeitgeist based around a timely premise. Filmed using the video chat platform Zoom, it tells the story of a group of friends who decide to have an online seance via video chat. The idea feels, on the surface, a little too on the nose. At best it sounds silly, at worst, a cynical cash-in on a devastating medical and social disaster.  But this a classic case of having to not judge a piece of media by it’s proverbial cover. Host is actually an incredibly smart, fun horror film. It plays not only with the assumptions of Found Footage and Haunting type films, but also with the very nature of it’s medium.

“Can you hear me?”
– Every Zoom chat ever

Everyone recalls the first time you see a Found Footage horror movie. For me, the first I recall is the original The Blair Witch Project.  While it has been parodied to death in the years since it’s release, it’s hard to describe the actual visceral horror of that movie without having seen it during it’s initial run. A combination of clever marketing and a deliberate use of minimalist effects made the film, in many regards, incredibly believable. The Blair Witch Project didn’t attempt to wow it’s audiences with digital effects or overly long exposition. It dove at the core of the ghost story, isolating it’s cast and relying on what you can’t see to do the work.

This is the lesson that Host decides follow. A relatable premise (friends engaging with each other via Zoom,) thrust into a scary situation (a seance,) have to try and endure a terrifying ordeal. Instead of bogging the film down with deep back stories for every character, it relies on the dialogue to tell you about the personalities of the protagonists. And instead of trying to force a non-diegetic score into the film, it allows for perhaps one of it’s most believable elements to come center stage.

As some of you know, outside of writing about horror films, I have been the co-host of a podcast for several years. My creative partners and I primarily record inside a studio environment. We try to always maintain a high audio quality for our endeavors, making the end result as pleasurable to listen to as is possible. In most traditional films, this is as important a goal as the clarity of visuals.  We are frankly spoiled by our modern media. Most consumer-grade communication programs can’t realistically create that. The average person does not have a HD quality webcam, ring lighting, or highly-sensitive microphones at their disposal. The end result of many Zoom chats is video and audio that is glitchy and uneven. Host very cleverly utilizes element to winning effect. It’s virtually impossible to make out fine details behind the person centered in the image. Instead of being alienating, this sort of intentional sloppiness is actually quite endearing. For those who have spent countless hours working from home and relying on video conferencing to communicate, the tinny quality of audio is paradoxically immersive.

While watching the film, I became incredibly aware that there is something similar to an early Punk or Black Metal recording element in effect with Host. Low quality recordings were often the best many of these musicians could realistically afford. In the case of Black Metal, some musicians intentionally would use cheaper gear to achieve this effect.  (For reference, checkout seminal Black Metal band Mayhem and their album, Deathcrush.) This element of lo-fi production deeply assists the acting itself. Our protagonists are not perfectly styled or wearing excessive make-up.  Sweatpants and imperfectly dyed hair serve again to immerse the audience in a world where outward appearance is no longer quite as important. (Let’s be honest people…how many of us are only wearing gym shorts of old T-shirts right now?)

So does Host live up to the hype? Frankly, yes. Time will tell whether or not it has any lasting power after the Pandemic of 2020 passes. At worst, it could be a tell-tale piece of art from a particular time period. But it’s worth pointing out that paintings made during and after the Flu Pandemic of 1919 have a profound impact even now. The effects of isolation and infectious disease are very real, and subsequently very potent sources of fear. Host may not be telling a new story, but it is an important, timely update on old themes.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

The Ties That Bind: Metamorphosis and Domestic Horror

Who can you trust?

This short question is at the root of many fears. Humans have almost always existed in family groups; since the dawn of humanity one of the baseline assumptions of civilization is that family should be the first people we trust. For the overwhelming majority of people their family is the first relationships they ever have. But what happens to people if they are betrayed by their families?

This question lies at the heart of Hong-seon Kim’s 2019 film Metamorphosis. This Shudder exclusive, on paper, appears to be nothing more than another film about demonic possession and supernatural terror. But beneath the surface of a narrative that horror fans are already no doubt familiar with is a much harder set of themes.

(Warning! Minor spoilers ahead!)

So let’s set the scene: after an exorcism goes wrong, a young Catholic priest named Joong-su is suffering a crisis of faith and of his profession. To compound his miseries, his brother Kang-gu and his family (composed of his wife, Myung-joo, daughters Sun-woo and Hyun-joo, and son Woo-jong) have moved from their previous home due to the negative attention this incident. But soon they discover that moving isn’t enough, and the that the family has a supernatural battle on their hands. Worse still, the family will be forced to ask who amongst their relatives they should trust.

Metamorphosis is one of those films that is entirely more interesting in execution than it seemingly should. In an era post-Paranormal Activity, films about hauntings and possessions run the risk of being, put simply, not scary. Moreover the seemingly simple narrative of “Good vs. Evil” can often be a lazy excuse for an overly-simplistic plot. And what film featuring demonic possession can hold a candle to The Exorcist?  Metamorphosis does draw a handful of influences from The Exorcist, but there is an argument to be made that any film dealing with demonic possession is going to draw criticisms for being derivative of William Friedkin’s work.

But putting Metamorphosis in a singular box of “demon movie” is both reductive and unfair.  It deals instead with a more primal sort of fear. I would argue, in fact, that it smartly addresses one of the most important roots of fear: betrayal.

While I find it typically advisable to stray away from “theories of everything,” I do think that there are recurring themes within any sort of storytelling. In the case of horror, the recurring element that is addressed is the sense of betrayal in a person or group’s life. Going back to a previous point, why was The Exorcist so incredibly resonant with audiences, both upon it’s release in 1973 and today? One can point to the acting or the special effects. Both are still effective, even now. And it would not be unfair to say that Friedkin’s directing creates an atmosphere that is entirely believable. But the plot of a pre-teen girl being possessed by Satanic forces causes us to examine how such nightmarish events could be linked to such a seemingly innocent child. We, the audience, are dealing with a betrayal of our trust in the inherent goodness of children, and that “these things don’t happen.”

“Dr. Freud, you have a call on Line One”

With Metamorphosis, the true horror at the core of the film is that the betrayal of family and home. As the demonic entity begins to torture Joong-su’s family, it decides to use the forms of the family members themselves. This act creates an air of confusion that is genuinely unsettling. Typically speaking most parents don’t scream at or become physically abusive towards each other. Home should in most cases be a place where individuals can be comfortable. The betrayal of the sanctity of home and family is, at bare minimum, a deep and old anxiety.

Is Metamorphosis a perfect horror film?  Of course not. But it is an incredibly smart film. It uses the tropes of demonic confession and Catholic exorcism in an ingenious way. Many films could learn to use the actual horror elements of any plot as a framing device, and not the core of the film itself, like as this film does. This is not to say, however, that the film doesn’t have broad appeal. The sharp, believable acting of the cast will appeal to people wanting psychological horror.  The sharp cinematography is a genuine pleasure and will satisfy fans of a more artistic bent. And then there’s the gore. There are some genuinely gross moments in this movie that made even me feel a little squeamish.

Metamorphosis is not for the light-hearted, but is a genuinely rewarding film. It is guaranteed to get under your skin and make you to squirm. Most of all, it will make you nervous about your closest connections. Is the person on the couch with you to be trusted? How well do you know your neighbors? And if you don’t have good answers to those questions, do you have the number for a priest in your phone’s contact list?

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

IN GENRE-VISION! Post Mortem on Folk Horror

As a media creator I am always worried about what a person might imagine my intentions are regarding any subject I address. Thankfully, the majority of my work is closest to journalism. There is almost always a clear line between the facts I am presenting and my opinions.  “Missing the point” is often the most charitable way of describing my fears. At best it can be a stretch, reading intentions or messages into a piece of art that was never intended. At worst, it could be a reading that paints my intentions as destructive or cruel, something I never aim at.

Media Analysis is always something of a sticky subject for these reasons. Outside of very specific examples, I don’t imagine that most artists or creatives are especially interested in harming their audience, or others outside their audience. However, that does not mean that positive, constructive art cannot have darker subtexts. And few genres of art are so adept at this as Horror.  And what of Folk Horror? As a subgenre, we’ve talked now for a substantial stretch of time about the recurring themes of Folk Horror and it’s mechanisms, it’s tropes, it’s symbols.

What is the compelling power of Folk Horror? Why do the scariest parts of folklore persist?

There is a common idea that mythology and folklore serve the purpose of explaining the seemingly unexplainable. How many cultures can you think of that have elaborate stories, or tales of deities and folk heroes explaining natural occurrences? How many deities of thunder and lightning can you name off the top of your head? Myths and folklore persist in part because they are good stories, honed for generations by retelling and embellishment by people with long memories and a flair for the creative. These stories that existed in societies predating our own knew how to craft a narrative for their lives.

And what of our world today? Are we so enlightened that we don’t behave like our “primitive” ancestors? The answer is simple: our ancestors were not primitive in any regard.  We are not dissimilar from them. Case in point: how many urban legends can you name off the top of your head? Coca-Cola and Mentos (don’t eat them together, your stomach will explode!) Everyone “knows someone whose cousin had too many hits of Acid and now believes that they are a cup of water or orange juice.”  Everyone recalls the Satanic Panic of the 1980s; many of us remember the warning that Judas Priest and/or Ozzy Osbourne were putting “backwards subliminal messages” on their records causing suicide or Devil-worship.

“Christmas in July sales ads have gotten weird during the Pandemic of 2020.”

This is our modern Folk Horror. We all exist awash in folklore, modern or otherwise. So ask yourself…why do these sometimes absurd, often horrifying stories persist?

They are seductive. They offer a satisfying narrative. You can sympathise with at least one person in the story. From the Heavy Metal fan to the concerned parent, they offer something for everyone. Therein lies a power of Folk Horror films. For those who can relate to outsiders like Albrun in Hagazussa to Thomasin in The Witch, breaking free from a repressive life (or simply taking revenge on people have betrayed you) has a potent allure. Conversely, if you’ve lived with the moralizing condescension of an authority figure, one who you suspect (or can prove!) is hypocritical or corrupt, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man can offer a satisfying vicarious thrill.

One of the fascinating things about Horror as a genre is that it offers something unique: a universal applicability. Most people are scared of threats to their well-being, or some radical disruption to their lives. Violence might be rare in many people’s lives, but very few especially look forward to the thought of it being done to them. As such, Folk Horror offers it’s specific templates with seeming infinite applicability. Folk Horror can be used simply by plugging in pre-existing cultural symbols or phenomena into stories relating to outsiders, or the modern colliding with the beliefs of a more ancient time and place.

 

Sergeant Howie Your lordship seems strangely… unconcerned.

Lord Summerisle Well I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder here. We’re a deeply religious people.

– The Wicker Man

Incongruity is another power of Folk Horror. In theory, exposure to other worldviews or philosophies is supposed to be extremely good for people. There are nearly whole cultural movements (and subsequently, industries) devoted to the mind-expanding power of seeing another culture or people living with different lives than those of us in the Industrialized world. But what happens when to us when that culture is supposed to be similar or the same as our own? With the exception of perhaps The Witch and Midsommar, all of the films we’ve looked at in this series represent a conflict of in-group versus out-group. The feeling of incongruity arises from a willful rejection of cultural signifiers. Noroi: The Curse, is a perfect example of this.  Shinto, the native religion of Japan, should provide a cultural jump-off point for any Japanese person.  But if a particular village in one region of the country has a hyper-specific practice, literally not seen outside of one tiny area…how might you respond? Would that belief seem strange or scary to you?  Or look at Apostle. Even in the hotbed of political and social life of England in the early 1900s, there are certain elements of religious life one could expect from fellow Britons. It would be odd enough to encounter a Catholic in a culture steeped in the worldview of The Church of England, but what about a commune practicing something decidedly less Christian?

This encounter with the unexpected is one of the foundations of horror. A subversion of the expected, especially in terms of the metaphysical assumptions of a culture, can serve to be a brutal shock. Betrayal is the root of so many of our fears; betrayal of Worldview assaults our very assumptions of Life.

So as we close out the discussion of this genre, I still feel that there are questions left unanswered, fields left unharvested, as it were. What would modern American Folk Horror look like, for instance? Is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a sort of Folk Horror? Or would something more subtle, say Invasion of The Body Snatchers be better at smashing our assumptions? And for that matter, do films like November pack the same punch outside of Estonian audiences? I am convinced that the subject is not exhausted. Folk horror might lay as a fallow field for a time, but at any moment, it might spring forth from the Earth, growing strange compared to it’s contemporaries, ready to bare dark fruit.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

IN GENRE-VISION! Midsommar

Midsommar

Dir. Ari Aster

A young woman, Dani, loses her entire family in a tragic accident. She accompanies her boyfriend and his college associates to Sweden to observe the Midsummer celebration of an isolated religious community. Soon Danifinds that at the idyllic setting and charming inhabitants might not be as peaceful as she first assumes.

Ari Aster’s first short film, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons, showed an early aptitude for slow boiling, intense horror.  After a stint directing shorts, Aster came screaming out of the gate with 2018’s Hereditary, to wide critical acclaim. Critics loved the film.  A. A. Dowd at The A.V. Club compared the film to The Exorcist, in terms of it’s harrowing seriousness. But Aster was by no means slowing down. A year later, Aster’s sophomore feature length film, Midsommar, in July of 2019. Other than The Witch, few films have brought Folk Horror into the mainstream. And in many regards, it’s the ideal film to bring modern audiences into the subgenre.

Midsommar, in many regards, is the spiritual sibling to The Wicker Man, utilizing the best available cinematography of it’s day to capture pure daytime horror. For the modern era, it might be the single best representation of the genre, and hopefully a sign of things to come. Folk Horror as a subgenre might not ever have the sheer raw appeal of a horror subgenre like a Slasher or Haunted House story. But for the braver sort of film goer, Midsommar has it all.

All of the elements necessary for Folk Horror to occur is in place; an isolated community, an outsider, an ominous secret, and the horrific power of revelation. But where the other Folk Horror films fall short, Midsommar hits the mark. Hagazussa, for instance, shows us Albrun isolated from her community. The Wicker Man gives us Sgt. Howie and his investigation. But Midsommar provides us with Dani, who is ultimately relatable. Her relationship with her boyfriend Christian is strained. Her family relationships are shattered by tragic, senseless death. Compared to Albrun’s seeming mental illness, and Sgt. Howie’s seemingly relentless bigotry, Dani is relatable. Most people have been in an unhealthy relationship. Many people have been forced to make sense of their lives after an unexpected family death. Dani is the human center that so many successful stories require.  Florence Pugh, who plays Dani, brings an absolute vulnerability to her role that it’s impossible to not feel for her.

A theme that runs through Midsommar is consent. Dani is forced into almost

A picture this pretty shouldn’t be so ominous.

every situation in the film. Starting with the death of her family and ending with her interactions with the Harga (the cloistered religious community who serve as the ostensible antagonists in the film.) Dani is in many ways deprived of autonomous choice throughout Midsommar, and this subtly dehumanizing force makes her a target.  But what is more insidious? The seemingly brutal naturalism of the Harga, or that of social norms in the less-cloistered world? Christian, Dani’s boyfriend, is the sort of bad partner who quietly gaslights only for his own relative comfort. Their relationship is in many regards, codependent. This line of early dialogue clearly outlines their issue:

Dani: [on the phone] It’s just in his tone – you can hear it. It’s like he’s trying to work up the nerve to say something and I just keep staving it off.

Girlfriend: So don’t stave him off. Be direct! Confront him!

Dani: Well – what if I scared him? I’m always roping him into my family crap…I’m always leaning on him! I tell him everything! I even called him today in tears because my sister sent me another scary email. What if I’m scaring him off?

The terrors of unhealthy relationships blending with potential malice of a small religious community, however, is counterpointed by simply stunning choreography.  Set in rural Sweden, during a time of year with minimal night time, the biggest moments of terror are shown in pure sunlight.  The majority of the film is not given any obfuscation. The seemingly idyllic countryside is as full of as much danger as the muddy furrows of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, but the lack of any exterior ugliness is part of the lure of this film. Rather like Summerisle in The Wicker Man, there is something seductive about the life of the Harga. Seeing this sundrenched community dancing, eating communal meals, and sharing  seemingly genuine affection for every member of their commune is refreshing.  Pelle, one of the members of the community, delivers this point brilliantly while trying to sooth Dani about her life:

Pelle:My birth-parents both died when I was a little boy. They burned up in a fire, and I became – technically – an orphan. So believe me when I say I know what that is, because I do. Yet my difference is: I didn’t get a chance to feel lost. Because I had a family – here – where everyone embraced me and swept me up and I was raised by a community that doesn’t distinguish between what is theirs and what is not theirs. That’s what you were sacrificed to. But I – have always felt…held. By a family. A real family. Which everyone deserves. And you deserve.

But What Is Midsommar Trying To Tell Us?

Midsommar is, at its heart, a story of loss and toxic relationships. But it offers an interesting set of questions.  It asks us about the role of community and love.

Dani’s relationship with Christian is so obviously unhealthy. But it’s not hard to imagine a different plot, where Dani is genuinely comforted by Christian. It seems like the right thing for him to do is  not metaphorically push her away with one hand after her tragic loss. Had Christian showed Dani more genuine affection in that moment, perhaps her mental state would not have been so shaky. It’s also shown that her family relationship has been wildly strained by mental health issues with her sister. Had her family been more stable, though no fault of their own, would Dani have found herself so tempted by the Harga?

As stated in the analysis of Hagazussa, communities have a traditional role in making the lives of it’s members better, and more stable. Dani has been isolated from any organic community and she suffers profoundly because of it. Isolation can be destructive and Dani suffers it’s ill-effects in very believable ways. The conflict of modern and ancient serves as a profound backdrop to this very issue. The Harga is connected to each other, to their land, and to their ancient traditions. The relative isolation of modern people is sharply visible when contrasted to these practices. As such, if offered a position of comfort and care amongst a caring community, how might any other grieving, alienated person behave?

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

IN GENRE-VISION! Dark Horses Running (Noroi: The Curse, Apostle, and November)

Not every film can be a genre-defining masterpiece. For every film that breaks new ground or deepens the subject matter, there are always films that slip through the cracks. Obviously, some are missteps. Poor execution or a half-cooked concept can kill a movie as easily as critical indifference or being booked against a larger, more mainstream friendly piece. But amidst the relative noise of our media landscape, some just seem to get lost in the shadows. Be they hidden gems or diamonds in the rough, sometimes a great example has to be accidentally discovered.

Cinemaphiles have a number of options available these days. Affordable access to streaming platforms like Netflix or Shudder has granted a greater access to the “deep cuts” of the horror world. The three films being discussed today are fantastic examples of this scenario. In a deviation from previous form, these films will not be receiving a deeper analysis, merely an overview and maybe a touch of the praise they so rightly deserve.

The noteworthy feature of these three films is that they do not totally adhere to the Folk Horror formula. They share at least a tangential connection to the genre, but might be considered to have a more crossover appeal. If someone might not find The Witch or Witchfinder General accessible, these three offer an interesting in-road to Folk Horror. As well, they present a new sort of grist in the mill. Not to unnecessarily mix metaphors, but they are like the flavors of the countryside finding their way into a more city-influenced palate.  (Links are included in this article so readers can easily access these films!)

Noroi: The Curse

Dir. Shiraishi Koji

Every genre that was once groundbreaking becomes overdone. Fans of horror in the last two decades will no doubt the moment when J-Horror (Japanese Horror, for the uninitiated) broke onto the scene.  And there is always a group who will groan at the mention of Found Footage movies.  For every example like  Ju-On: The Grudge or  Spanish Found Footage masterpiece (REC) there are a million bad ripoffs, spinoffs, or misfires.  But once in awhile a film blends together multiple elements that end up stronger than expected.  Shiraishi Koji’s Noroi: The Curse is a perfect example of this in action.

The Plot: Kobayashi Masafumi is a successful, well-regarded documentarian dealing with the paranormal. Kobayashi has embarked on a new effort, bringing together mysterious disappearances, psychics, and a village with a dark secret. Nearing the end of  filming his most recent effort, however, his home burns to the ground, his wife is found dead in the rubble, and our protagonist has gone missing.

The pretense of the film, of course, is that the viewer is seeing this final documentary.  And as far as Found Footage is concerned, this J-Horror joint is an absolute masterclass in slow-burning tension and plot threads neatly entwining. The elements of Folk Horror are the icing on the cake.  Japanese religion and mythology is an area remarkably unexplored in cinema outside the country. As well, the film makes use of less well-known Japanese mainstays (such as primetime variety shows) to explore and tie together the chills. It might be tempting to write off these elements as inaccessible for Western audiences, but suspend your Judgement. Noroi: The Curse is simultaneously cerebral and spine chilling. Horror is a land without borders, after all.  Ghosts, monsters, forbidden rituals, and mysterious deaths are the stuff of nightmares irrespective of culture.

This Shudder Exclusive might be sometimes lost in their ever expanding library of lesser-known films, but for subscribers it is an excellent addition.  Fans of Ringu or Visitor Q will not be disappointed!

 

Apostle

Dir. Gareth Evans

Apostle is an example of what happens when a writer or director breaks away from their best-known style and proves their versatility. Perhaps best known for The Raid series of action flicks, Gareth Evans’ Apostle is brutal but engrossing.

A woman is kidnapped by a cult on a remote Welsh island in 1905. Her brother goes undercover in an attempt to bring her home.  Of course, not everything is what it seems with the cult, and soon he finds himself struggling for his own survival.  This setup might feel perhaps a bit too close a film like The Wicker Man, but Evans’ brings an entirely modern (and thoroughly gore-soaked) approach to Folk Horror.  The isolation of the setting, as well as the political and religious volatility of the era, add deeply to the atmosphere of dread.  Dan Stevens portrayal of our protagonist, Thomas Richardson, is positively gripping, and Michael Sheen as Malcolm Howe, the cult’s leader, make the film worth seeing on it’s own.

But it wouldn’t be a horror film without moments of absolutely gut-churning ugliness, and as such, Apostle does not disappoint. Evans is, after all, an action director, and he infuses the moments of violence and terror with a highly kinetic, but unflinching style.  You never once lose the actors in a blur of camera work.  Nothing is unnecessarily obscured to save on production costs.  Instead, Evans lingers on the moments so that the shock actually registers. These elements bring a remarkably mainstream appeal to a subject matter (period dramas and, y’know, Folk Horror) that can be alienating to potential viewers. Apostle delivers, and delivers big.

November

Dir. Rainer Sarnet

Is there an intersection where Experimental Film and Folk Horror can exist?  The Estonian production November aims to find out, and frankly delivers.  Perhaps the most abstract of the films covered in this series, November is not the most direct or linear story, but for the more adventurous filmgoer, it can provide an utterly unique experience.

Where to begin discussing the plot of a movie like November? Any attempt will seem arbitrary, but it’s that kind of movie. In an unnamed 19th century Estonian village, strange things are afoot.  The spirits of the dead return on All Souls Day.  Supernatural helpers called kratt are stealing livestock. People are selling their souls to the Devil (who manifests as a vulgar prankster.) The Plague arrives, a young girl is a werewolf, and villagers are conspiring against a landowning German baron (played by Human Centipede standout Dieter Laser, no less!)

Confused? Don’t be. On paper, November might not sound like everyone’s cup

Believe it or not, this is *not* the weirdest moment in the film November.

of tea. But in execution, it is a hypnotic and nearly hallucinogenic film, drenched in Estonian folklore and delivered in a chilling, immersive black and white.  Compared to Apostle and Noroi: The Curse, November is remarkably light on scares and gore. However, November delivers in atmosphere by exploring the darkest, most absurd sides of rural life and worldviews.  Like Japan, Eastern European folklore is severely underexplored in popular media.  (The kratt, for instance, seems almost completely unique. You could compare it to the Golem of Jewish lore, but that analogy falls apart beyond a surface glance.)  November serves as a brilliant example of the potential of Folk Horror as a genre to be less plot driven, and more about an overall “vibe.”  It might not become your date night favorite, but exists as the first true Art House experience in the Folk Horror genre.

The next edition of this series will be the final full-length film analysis in the Folk Horror genre.  If there are films that you, the reader, feel deserve more attention, please mention them in the comments!

 

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

 

IN GENRE-VISION! Hagazussa

IN GENRE-VISION!

Hagazussa

Dir: Lukas Fieglfeld

A woman, Albrun, lives alone in the German Alps during the 15th century. She is an outsider, branded a witch by an uncaring, xenophobic local community. Her short life is marked by madness, violence, isolation, and fear.  

This cheery description does not, however, do the film justice. Hagazussa (a word from an Old German dialect literally meaning “Witch”) is a truly masterful film. Eschewing a straightforward expository style, the directorial debut of Lukas Fiegelfeld is more a poem than a simple story.  Hagazussa cuts directly to the heart of the Folk Horror experience. It deals with the way of life of the outsider, instead of glorifying it’s alienation.  Hagazussa puts you in the driver’s seat with one of the most feared entities in the late Medieval period: the Witch themselves.

Broken into four distinct acts (entitled SHADOWS, HORN, BLOOD, and FIRE,) Hagazussa guides us through the life of Albrun (portrayed with shocking intensity by Aleksandra Cwen.)  The film drips in atmosphere, primarily opting for environmental sound over music.  Special effects are used sparsely, and to a crushing effect.  

It’s tempting to write off Hagazussa as riding the coat-tails of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but ultimately the comparison stops at the edges of genre. They share obvious similarities (use of time-period appropriate clothing and language,for instance) but beyond that, the reflections cease. It also shares some features with modern horror generally. The film relies less on stylism and more on realism. It deals with the dirt and grit of agrarian life. The cinematography is beautiful but also does not deny the visual power of stagnant water and mud. The sparse dialogue, entirely in Old High German, is somewhat alien even to modern German speakers. All of these elements combine into a grim stew.   

Whereas many Folk Horror films have you following multiple characters, Hagazussa’s focus is entirely on Albrun. This focus is profoundly intimate, which is perhaps the single meanest trick that Fiegelfeld plays on his audience. For every moment of cruelty visited upon Albrun, you are suffering with her. You are isolated in her cabin during every moment of mental confusion, and you are with her when she begins to exact revenge. Even at its most grotesque, Hagazussa stares, unblinkingly, into a world untethered from the grounding of a caring society. Albrun’s life is yours for the entire 102 minutes of the film’s run time.  

 

“At least we have a lovely view!”

And where to begin describing the brutal details of Albrun’s life?  The late Medieval period is not  the filth-covered Hell-scape that popular media often portrays. Instead Hagazussa focuses on the realities of that time period. Compared to the sterility of the modern era, life in the 15th Century would be lived much closer to the Earth. Human life depended on good harvests and favorable weather conditions. Humans were much more likely to fall victim to the dangers of the woods and fields than today. The brutal toll of The Black Death looms like a shadow from the beginning of the film. 

And this says nothing of the intellectual climate of the times. Religion, specifically Catholicism, held a near virtual milieu control on the lives of most of Central Europe.  This, combined with the prevalence of folk belief and prejudices (witchcraft and Antisemitism, for instance,) led to a worldview that could easily displace and destroy the lives of those not in line with that of regional authorities and social norms. Early in the film, we see a young Albrun and her mother being menaced on Twelfth Night (a traditional Christian holiday falling in early January, near the end of the Christmas holiday.) The individuals terrorizing Albrun are dressed as Perchten, a holdover from Germanic paganism said to enforce social norms and rules. (For more information on this tradition, the work of Al Ridenour is utterly invaluable. His podcast, Bone and Sickle will absolutely delight fans of Folk Horror in media.)  For a person of this time period, it stands to reason that the horrid, horned Perchten costumes would serve a horrifying message even without their overt threats. 

Further into the film, Auburn is reminded of marginalized position within their community. Local children bully her, only to be somewhat dissuaded by the presence of a local woman, Swinda.  Appearing at first as a potentially friendly face, Swinda makes an effort to be closer to Albrun, but not all is what it seems.  She does, however, inform Albrun that the priest of their community would like to speak to her. The meeting does not go kindly, however.  The village priest seems to take a small thrill in chastising Albrun for not being a part of the community.  

The morbid case of your mother, and your secluded way of life.  A way of life that already tempted many believers to touch the darkness. A touch…that sprung from sacrilege.”

It’s worth noting that this line of dialogue is delivered while Albrun and the priest are standing in what appears to be a chapel inside an ossuary. The priest gives Albrun what is presumed to be the skull of her long-deceased mother, which is inexplicably been painted with an ivy and rose pattern around the circumference of it’s crown. The priest seems to have decided that the skull of a woman accused of witchcraft is far too horrid to be kept with the remains of a presumably faithful congregation. While ossuaries might have been common practice in Central Europe during the Medieval era, it’s not difficult to imagine the effect that such a location would have on a person who already appears to be struggling with social issues or their mental health.  Not to mention, how many people have been forced to take the vital remains of their deceased family members out of their resting place? Indignity and trauma follow Albrun like a dark cloud, and this incident is not the ugliest thing we see her endure. 

 

But What Is Hagazussa Trying To Tell Us?

 

Hagazussa is a film about the experience of the outsider. Using the language of Folk Horror, it illustrates the brutal realities faced by people living on the fringes of “polite” society. Albrun represents everything that a woman in 15th Century Central Europe should not be; a single mother, a non-Catholic, uninvolved in the life and rules of her surrounding community. She is the daughter of a woman branded with heresy and witchcraft, and by the rules of that community, guilty of those sins as well. She may or may not be mentally ill at the beginning of the film. By the third and fourth acts, Albrun is clearly sliding down into some sort of darkness, either psychological or metaphysical.  

In most communities, the fears confronted in this film are positively universal.  Single parenting, ostracism, being forced to live outside a social safety net, all of these have been death sentences in days past. And in our modern era, we are forced to confront that these material and interpersonal conditions have disastrous consequences. People the world over have warned of the dangers of not caring for others, or as a supposedly ancient proverb warns,  The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”  This exchange between Albrun and Swinda perfectly summarizes the sort of worldview our protagonist faces from the opening scene:

Swinda: We really do have a nice spot here in our mountains. We don’t have to be afraid here.

Albrun: Afraid? Of what?

Swinda: Of those who don’t carry God’s light in their hearts. By the Jews…and by the heathens. They come at night, and like animals they take you. And…a few months later, you bear a child like that.

In any context Albrun’s life is utterly tragic. The film uses the language of Horror to express her tragedy and make the audience feel her pain and alienation. Hagazussa is, for all it’s mist, snow, and shadow, a surprisingly moral tale. It’s about the sadness of an alienated existence. It shows us why people should be included in the greater world, even if they are different from the status quo.

 

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

IN GENRE-VISON! The Witch

A Puritan family is banished from their plantation community for an unstated disobedience, rooted in some religious dispute. The father and mother of the family, William and Karen, attempt to set up a homestead at the edge of a forest, appearing to fall under supernatural assault. They must struggle to protect not only their lives, but their souls.

Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut is so much more than a mere genre film. The Witch is arguably the Ur-text for modern Folk Horror. It holds on to much of the standard elements of the genre while adding doses of modern sensibility.  It questions not only the role of religious zealotry, but the social controls of isolated communities. It confronts the material conditions that create social tensions.  More than fear of the supernatural, it delves into the ways even the tightest and oldest of social organizations can snap under incompetence.

In order to understand The Witch as a genre picture, it helps to understand the mindset of Puritan colonists in the 1630s.  In a February 2016 interview for The Verge, Eggers commented that “When I discovered what the idea of the evil witch was — that the fairy tale world and the real world were the same thing in the early modern period; people really thought these women were fairy tale ogresses, and they needed to be exterminated.”  For modern people, this idea seems absurd, if not completely obscene. But in a world where people were limited in their source of information it’s not difficult to see how this might come about. Our modern sensibilities are formed in large part by our access to information. As such, it isn’t difficult to see how people might believe in something without being able to verify these details in a physical sense.

As a horror film The Witch is not typical. Lesser directors might rely on intense, overt gore to drive home the terror. They might leave out necessary character development or ham-fistedly drive exposition in an attempt to cut back on acting talent and directorial prowess. Compared to many of the horror films of the 2010s, The Witch is a subtle, cerebral film. Minus it’s slight use of jump scares and bloody violence, it is more comparable to a costume drama than a slasher. Eggers’ trick is immersion, not jarring alienation.By using obsessive attention to historical minutiae he draws us into the world of a small family all alone, stranded at the edge of a hostile frontier.

 This attention to detail is more than literal set dressing. It’s baked into the details of the plot itself. There has been a shocking amount of preserved historical record related to the belief of Witchcraft amongst early American colonists. The family’s crops are failing. Their livestock do not produce adequate milk or eggs.  Historical records suggest that these were all signs of witchcraft, of being cursed by some malignant entity. These “signs” of being under some devilish influence, for the record, are not unique to the Puritan experience. These sorts of accusations appear all throughout the time period. Rather like Witchfinder General, the use of historical detail serves to deepen our immersion and provides more than adequate fodder for madness and violence in the film. 

Another key to the success of The Witch is it’s cast. By maintaining a small set of characters we can watch as they, one by one, succumb to the pressures of these horrific circumstances. Eggers’ reliance on a cast of lesser-known (but incredibly gifted) actors only deepens the story.  Our lynchpin in this story is Thomasin, the eldest daughter of William and Katherine.  She is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy. Difficult as it is to believe, this is her debut film. As a young woman who has recently come-of-age, she portrays her role of a young woman coming of age in a repressive environment with intense passion and profound nuance. Playing counterpoint is Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, her younger brother and the eldest son of the family. Caleb is less passionate than his elder sister, but no less serves as a moral compass of sorts in our drama. Much of the film centers on their experiences observing their parents (played by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both most popularly seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones) attempting to maintain order in their extremely troubled home. As well, a pair of twins, Jonas and Mercy, and an infant, Samuel. Surrounded by so few characters to maintain, all the action unfolds in a tight arena. 

Perhaps part of the power of this film is it’s relatability; in uncertain times, families struggle to make the proverbial ends meet. We modern folk may not face the terrors of agrarian starvation (or the more metaphysical worries of being cursed by a witch,) but we understand what it is like to worry about having mouths to feed and bills to pay.  This is more than some improbable serial murder in a mask with a grudge, this is an existential threat that many modern people face. Filmgoers who have struggled with the backtalk of a rebellious teenager no doubt understand the exasperation of  dealing with a teenager calling out a parent on their hypocritical behavior.  And every person recalls receiving an unsatisfying answer about the bigger questions of life from a supposed authority figure. And this says nothing of the crises of Faith that so many people undergo at various points throughout their lives.  This exchange between William and Katherine is a beautiful example:

 

William: I fear thou lookst too much upon this affliction. We must bend our thoughts towards God, not ourselves. He hath never taken a child from us. Never a one, Kate. Who might earn such grace? We have been ungrateful of God’s love.

Katherine: He hath cursed this family.

These social tensions underpin much of the film.  A secondary theme explored using the Folk Horror framework is the disintegration of the family unit. It’s possible to read their supernatural strife as merely emblematic of the traumas that all families undergo during unforeseen circumstances. A death in a family, or an economic downturn, can cause typically stable units to tremble to their core.  Previously mentioned films in this column essentially ignore or downplay the fears unique to domestic life.  It’s difficult to imagine Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, being overly concerned with whether or not his children love him or are being honest about their behavior when outside his observation. 

And you think *you* hate tense family dinners!

 

And what of our titular witch? Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that they do not make as much of an appearance as one might expect. The Witch has substantially less to do with the perceived horrors of witchcraft (though there is plenty of that, rest assured horror fans!) and more to do with the realities of an alienated life. But like the very best of horror, the less that is shown, the tighter the tension becomes. 

We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.

Perhaps the single greatest villain in this film is the environment itself. Our Puritan protagonists are not lifelong residents. They are colonists, still outsiders to an entire continent with it’s own people and landscape. The forests and countryside at this time period would still be largely unexplored, and not inhabited by entirely friendly faces. Here is where a unique trick in the Folk Horror genre is played; our protagonists are not outsiders dealing with an insular community. They are an insular community of outsiders. The forces invading their remote outpost are the very forces of the world around them..Whether Katherine and William realize it or not, they are under siege from their insecurities and failings as people and as parents, as well as being forced to deal with supernatural violence.  Compare this to The Wicker Man: Sgt. Howie is attempting to bring law and order to Summerisle, a seemingly happy community who is living with the realities of modern agriculture and social conditions.  Katherine & William are trying to bring a Puritan Christian vision of the world into a seemingly faceless world. It isn’t ultimately concerned with their particular philosophy.  They are fighting for their lives when we first meet them.  And by the end, they are fighting both forces from within and from without.

But What Is The Witch Trying To Tell Us?

Some films are only satisfying when read in terms of meta-textual narrative or symbolic interpretation.  Other films are best taken straight without much concern for symbolism, more a fast food than a home-cooked meal. And yet, The Witch is satisfying as both. It has enough atmosphere to satisfy the historian, enough genuinely disturbing acts to satisfy more casual viewers, and has layers of social depth to lend itself to exegesis.  At all levels, The Witch calls out to the viewer. The Witch is rare in horror cinema in that it does not offer us a simple choice of how to read the narrative. 

Ultimately, this film examines the function of tension on groups, large and small. Instead of focusing on the wild and wacky world of isolated religious extremes, it calls upon the very real fears of all societies. It does not shy away from realities of rural life during the 1600s. Instead it relates them to us without abandoning much of their actual historical couching.  The language is old, the clothes look uncomfortable, the food scarce, and the work appears to be backbreaking. The Witch is somehow both otherworldly and utterly without fantasy.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show