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

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! Witchfinder General

IN GENRE-VISION!

 

Witchfinder General

Dir. Michael Reeves

 

Widely considered to be the first of the Folk Horror genre, Witchfinder General is an underrated watershed for modern Horror films. It serves as a brutal high-water mark for all of the films that follow in its footsteps.  It’s immediate successors, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man cannot hold a candle to the sheer unflinching heaviness of this movie. Witchfinder General unflinchingly shows the reality of one of the ugliest trends in English history.

But Witchfinder General (henceforth abbreviated as WG) pulls it’s grim tricks through manipulation of the historical narrative. Set with historical characters, historical events, and historical locales, WG can also serve as something of a warning. On display are all of the building blocks for Horror as a study in human character and the violence inherent in systems. WG is devoid of supernatural elements, instead relying upon reality for it’s palette.

Before the credits roll you are thrust into the world of the British countryside in 1645. England is in the middle of a civil war between Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary movement, and the Royalists, who serve King Charles I. During this period of upheaval, another movement is spreading across Europe: Witch Hunts. Goaded on in the previous century by books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches,” an early guide to the identification and punishment of witchcraft) paranoia about the presence of supernatural evil seems to be everywhere. By the mid 1600s, Witchfinders became a new fixture in society. Perhaps the best known of the time period in England is Matthew Hopkins, and his assistant, John Stearne. WG uses Hopkins and Stearne as it’s antagonists to brutal aplomb. Their historic personages offer perfect cinematic fodder.  Much of their lives is frankly unknown, and historical accounts of their actions are at least somewhat conjectural.  (A gifted screenwriter could just as easily take Hopkins and Stearne and turn them into heroes in a different script.) 

Everything needed for a grim 90 minute film is set in action within minutes of it’s run; a suspected witch is hanged, Parliamentarian soldiers engage in a skirmish with Royalist snipers, and a Witchfinder is set upon a small town to purge a suspected witch.  A collision course has been charted, and all the viewer can do is stand back in dread.  

Richard Marshall is a soldier loyal to Cromwell, and after the fight with Royalist snipers, heads to the East Anglian village of Brandeston. There he meets with John Lowes, a village priest, who gives him permission to marry Sara, his niece. Little does Marshall know, The Witchfinder Matthew Hokins and John Stearne have been dispatched to round up those suspected by their neighbors of Witchcraft. Here the plot unfolds, and our characters are set upon each other, though unwittingly at first. None of them can predict the brutal outcome, and like our audience, seem helpless to stop the falling dominoes it sets up.

None of the story, however, could have been properly told without it’s cast. They give an absolutely tight performance. The most obvious is Vincent Price’s portrayal of Matthew Hopkins. It’s done with the sort of deft wizardry that only Price was capable of, blending foppish propriety with sneering menace. Despite his polished veneer, Price portrays Hopkins as a corrupt opportunist, cynical and cold-blooded. Price is profoundly intimidating in this film. He is as happy to shoot a person at close range as he is to sentence them to hang or drown, all while looking one with seeming dispassion.  His assistant, John Stearne, is played by Robert Russell.  Russell is positively disgusting in his role, an uncouth Yang to Price’s debonair Yin. Hilary Dwyer and Ian Ogilvy portray Sara Lowes and Richard Marshall.  They serve as audience stand-ins in the most perverse way possible. Starting out as essentially innocents in the unfolding plot, they find their decency (not to mention health and safety) stretched to nearly unimaginable extremes.  Their sincere performances are the stakes the hold this film to the ground. And in a  prophetic cameo, Patrick Wymark plays Oliver Cromwell. Wymark would later go on to play The Judge in The Blood on Satan’s Claw.

 

Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.

 

Like the rest of the Folk Horror genre, WG explores paranoia and violence. In this case it seems to be implied less than shown.  None of the individuals accused of witchcraft are shown to be engaged in anything overtly evil or supernatural. A single line of dialogue from a passing character is often all that is needed to set a brutal killing in motion. As modern people it can be incredibly difficult to imagine how the paranoia or hatred of one’s neighbors might lead to such horrific events. It’s important to remember that witch hunts are not confined to the past. American history, for instance, is rife with events that essentially fit the bill.  The McCarthy hearings of 1954 was, ostensibly, to root out “communists” in the United States. Anyone found even mentioned in these hearings saw their careers or lives damaged, if not destroyed. When it was revealed tha

“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” – Matthew Hopkins, probably

t Sen. Joseph McCarthy had little to no evidence of any actual wrong-doing, he himself suffered public backlash, but it did little to repair the reputations and livelihoods of his victims.  Flash forward to the 1980s, and we see the McMartin preschool trial, in which a Californian preschool and its employees were accused of child abuse and, notably, Satanic worship.  In the end, employees of the preschool faced 115 charges of child abuse, one of whom served five years in jail, before all accusations were dropped. While the owners of the McMartin school may have been found innocent, they suffered financially and personally. Often not taken into account in this incident is the damage done to the children who attended McMartin. They were coerced by forceful investigators (and in the initial accusations, by a mentally unstable parent) into concocting some the most horrid and absurd accusations made against innocent people seen in American legal history. 

But What Is Witchfinder General Trying To Tell Us?

The witch-hunts of European history have come to be the template by which an entire phenomena has been defined. While modern people might not literally hang or burn at the stake outsiders or others at the social margins, it’s easy to see the similarity.  Human behavior does not seem to change much, century to century. Insular communities can easily demonize anyone not fitting into their established norms. There is always someone willing to wear the garb of authority to tell us the difference between Good and Evil. Worse still, that individual will always come along if there is money or power to be gained in that endeavor.  

Even though the film does play loosely with historical events, it’s grounding in reality does afford a place to explore witch hunts as a metaphor for mob mentality and the people who become involved in it. Furthermore it shows the dangerous effects that unfettered power can have on an individual. Matthew Hopkins is paid to perform his duty, and is more than pleased to use any method his imagination can cook up to punish those he judges to be witches. Here the director shows us the abuse of power. The camera simply lingers on the punishments of the accused, letting us see what these deaths mean, both physically and emotionally. WG is a bleak film in this regard. While it is several orders of magnitude less bloody than films made only a few decades later, WG is still shocking, if not nearly revolting.  

After filming, the British Board of Film Censors called for several cuts to be made to WG, regarding the film as being simply too brutal for most audiences.  Released in 1968, this predates the so-called “Video nasties” list, made a decade-plus later in the U.K.  Film censorship (and art censorship in general) might seem almost quaint at the time of this writing, but at the time there was a sincere public concern about whether or not depictions of violence and sexuality might have a negative effect on the public. These moral panics still continue to this day, much like and often accompanying, a proverbial witch hunt. It’s worth noting that WG still has a dedicated cult following despite its age and early attempts to cut down on it’s brutality.  

Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man form sort of an “Unholy Trinity” of early Folk Horror films.  The choices made by the film’s directors and crews helped to create a cinematic language and style that is coming to fruition in the modern era.  Without these early contributions, many of the films that will be discussed in this column could not have been made. Fear of “The Other,” of communities in isolation, or of a Past refusing to submit to the Present are on display.  Humans today still have ancient, primordial fears.  The distance experienced by modern urban living from an agrarian life is growing increasingly massive.  But it is still ready being explored now, as the next entries in this series will illustrate.  

 

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! The Blood on Satan’s Claw

 

The Blood On Satan’s Claw

Dir. Piers Haggard

In the English countryside, a plow cuts a deep furrow into the earth. The farmer senses something amiss, dismounts, and runs forward to inspect the situation. Partially unearthed in the furrow is the remains of something humanoid, what appears to be a mostly decayed head, a single eyeball still intact in it’s socket.

So begins The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the second film in what is widely considered to be the genesis of Folk Horror in cinema. In comparison to The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not a subtle film. It’s only slightly more gore-soaked, and paints the isolation of the English countryside in two coats. The paranoia of outside forces is not only writ large, but also accented with more overt sexuality and disgusting body horror elements.

One of the most masterful strokes employed in this film is it’s score. Composed by Marc Wilkinson, the score is genuinely unsettling.  Instead of drenching itself with Donovan-esque folk ballads, it opts instead to go fully out with strange sonic landscapes. Again, this film is not happy with subtlety, and would rather be weird than be respectable. Like so many other examples of genre films it was not a tremendous success at the time.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not even a cult classic these days. But it is absolutely a cornerstone of Folk Horror’s earliest days, and deserving of its position as a genre-definer.

But there is more to the backdrop of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (henceforth abbreviated TBOSC) than meets the eye. Set amid the monarchical upheaval of England in the 17th Century, TBOSC hits all the marks of Folk Horror and more. It seems to share most of the features pointed out in my previous review of The Wicker Man, but adds into the film a more “traditional” horror approach. Of the three “original ” Folk Horror films from England (The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General,) TBOSC is the only overtly supernatural of the bunch, and is unambiguous in it’s embrace of devilish forces as a metaphysical reality.  

The seemingly idyllic English countryside should not be a source of menace, but in the hands of director Piers Haggard, it becomes a source of seemingly extra-dimensional menace. The cinematography of TBOSC plays a neat trick; by use of camera angles and (frankly) by screwing with the perspective on-screen, the entire world becomes subtly threatening.  There is something of a straight line that can be drawn from this film to pieces such as The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers.) The true moments of horror are (at least until the film’s third act) are more implied than directly shown, keeping much to the traditional methods of storytelling seen in folklore. 

How do we know, sir, what is dead? You come from the city. You cannot know the ways of the country.”

At the heart of TBOSC is the conflict of inside vs. outside, modern science vs. old faith, the order of the city vs. the order of the country. The Judge (portrayed with sneering aplomb by Patrick Wymark,) thinks himself above the seemingly primitive belief of the village where the film unfolds. The Judge in many regards presages Sergeant Howie from The Wicker Man.  It’s frankly not difficult to see him trade his wig in for a modern police tunic.  He represents a sort of self-assured authority., But like most of the “modern outsider” characters common to early Folk Horror films (a subject that will likely require its own entry in this series) his authority feels self-referential.  Through dialogue we know he is a judge…but we never see anything outside of this claim and his behavior to that power. He is quick to remind the village’s inhabitants of his role, and to impose his authority on everyone. On the other side of the coin, however, is Angel Blake. Portrayed by Linda Hayden, Angel is an absolute raw power. Hayden’s performance drips with sinister sexuality and is, by the third act, positively reveling in being a menace. In the space of a single film you see her seduce, betray, mislead, and destroy.  She is more than a mere rebellious teenager bucking social conventions..  She is a source of moral perversion and degeneracy in a small community.

 

“This script is the weirdest sequel to Mean Girls I’ve read yet.”

As such, this film plays with ambiguity. Neither The Judge nor Angel Blake are especially likable.  Their polar opposite personalities are both equally  repellent. Unlike the inhabitants of Summerisle in The Wicker Man, there is nothing especially charming about Angel and her coven. The Judge might be a source of order in a seemingly lawless environment, but his order is one of absolutes. He is more than happy to directly condemn a young man’s choice in who he wants to marry, and will gladly insult a country doctor (the only person in the village who seems to understand what is starting to happen at the point he is introduced.) Angel Blake and The Judge are on a collision course and everyone in this village will be forced to reckon when this dialectic unfolds.

But What Is The Blood On Satan’s Claw Trying To Tell Us?

The central story of TBOSC deals with the nature of conflicting duality. The figures of authority in the village are seeing that their power is not absolute, and can be easily shaken. Characters such as the almost too succinctly-named Reverend Fallowfield get an up-close-and-personal brush with the evil radiating from Angel Blake and her cohorts, and nearly pays for it with his life. As the only ostensible educator in the village he seems to view himself as worthy of being obeyed by his teenage charges.  Moreover, being a church leader, he would in most any village in England during this time period, be one of the most formally educated people around. And here again we have to drift back to the ambiguity displayed in the film’s text. There is an evil rampant, but the forces of good are, at best, too weak-willed to effectively take control, and at worst, willing to bring down the hammer on anyone even remotely involved in this conflict.  It might be a battle between good and evil here but the film also doesn’t apologize for The Judge’s actions.  It is not interested in showing the elders of the village as morally right, other than that they are not demonically possessed.

The battle lines are seemingly clear. There can be no balance struck and no negotiation is possible. It’s impossible to deny the darkness that Angel Blake and her compatriots are spreading throughout their home village. The Judge, Reverend Fallowfield, and the other authority figures in the village are fighting to restore their vision of authority at all costs.  Early in the first act, Reverend Fallowfield hits the nail on the head with a single line of dialogue: 

“There is growing amongst you all an insolent ungodliness, which I will not tolerate!”

Like The Wicker Man, one can easily draw a “Youth versus Adult” narrative out of this film.  1971 was still smelling of the gunpowder used at Kent State, and the brutal economic turns of the 1980s were still too far ahead to be predicted.  If “The Establishment” was starting to feel that the turbulence of the 1960s was now in the rear-view, it was only narrowly so.  Youthful rebellion always sells, and if there is a legitimate malevolence involved, all the better.  

The Doctor: My lord, when I heard of Ralph Gower’s discovery, I was reminded of this old volume. Mock, sir, if you will. These sages had access to much wisdom.

The Judge: Doctor, witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?

The Blood on Satan’s Claw can easily be seen by the “respectable” film establishment as little more than a forgotten blip in the world of genre films, and a minor presence in Horror films specifically.  With so many offerings on streaming services and in the bowels of video archives, there are more flashy and expensively made films readily availability.  But Horror films have a strange quality of being periodically resurgent.  In an era where remakes and reboots are rampant, many of the less-sanitary pieces are less likely to be so mercilessly spit back onto audiences with a fresh layer of polish. For those audiences that The Judge might malign, a film like The Blood on Satan’s Claw requires no cleaning, no new cast or expensively produced score.  It’s power sits buried in the soil, waiting to be revealed, to once again cast it’s malevolent spell on new communities.

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! The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

Dir. Robin Hardy

While not the chronologically first of the films most commonly associated with the Folk Horror genre, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is by far the most influential and best-recognized. The Wicker Man is a masterclass in the slow build of tension, as well as exposing the madness and mania of zealotry, irrespective of its conceptual framework. Clocking in at just under ninety minutes, few films cram in as much brilliantly quotable dialogue and brilliant character into such a short space.

The premise of the film is fairly straightforward compared to The Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. A British constable, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward,) is dispatched to the island of Summersle to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl, Rowan Morrison, who disappeared from the island one year prior. Police Sergeant Howie arrives shortly before the island’s inhabitants (who appear to have totally rejected the Anglican Church generations prior, in favor of pre-Christian Celtic pagan beliefs) are set to celebrate their yearly May Day fertility rituals. Police Sergeant Howie isn’t merely a fish out of water; he’s a man with a target on his back.

“Some things in their natural state have the most vivid colours.”

Much like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man is a study in “daylight horror,” set on a stunning landscape and loaded with seemingly out-of-place 1970s folk songs. It’s a film that is very much a product of its time, but also shockingly modern. Nearly bereft of night time scenes or imagery, The Wicker Man accomplishes in clear gorgeous light a level of atmosphere that many modern horror films must obfuscate to achieve. Unlike its predecessors, the film is set in the modern era achieving a sort of chronological asynchrony that only adds to it’s off-kilter, uncanny atmosphere. The isolation of the film’s setting contributes in large part to this  effect. Summerisle is a fictional island set in the Hebrides, a chain of islands off the coast of Scotland. It was filmed not only on the Scottish mainland, but also in  surrounding small island communities of the iIsland of Whithorn and others. The feeling of the island, even in broad daylight, is one of intense isolation.  Even in modern day attire, the feeling of Summerisle is one of intense history and age. It’s not entirely impossible to imagine that  the community where The Blood On Satan’s Claw takes place might have grown into a sort of town where The Green Man Inn (a recurring set-piece in The Wicker Man) might have eventually sprung up.

The common Folk Horror trope of isolated locations, close to nature, is played with both literally and symbolically. Lingering shots of coastlines and country roads create much of the atmosphere in The Wicker Man. You are called to contemplate the relationship of a people to their land and location, offering a materialist commentary before the actual spiritual practices are in any way revealed. However, this imagery begins to rise, literally and figuratively, from the landscape itself.  Phallic Maypoles and shrubberies dot the landscape. There are as many images of livestock seen as there are automobiles. You see one ruined church, but plenty of shots of stone megaliths and wooden ritual structures.

But What Is The Wicker Man Trying To Tell Us?

The film deals in shockingly direct criticisms of order and cultural uniformity. Sergeant Howie is a Highland Police officer, thus a subject of the United Kingdom, the same as Summerisle’s inhabitants. They speak the same language and wear the same clothes (sans the Sergeant’s uniform, but his garb is unmistakably modern.)  And yet the island’s residents and Sergeant Howie are not the same; Sergeant Howie is a devout Christian, and does not hide his complete disgust at the pagan religion practiced on Summerisle. And up until the third act of the film, the island’s residents tolerate his repulsion with a sort of bemused patience.

Sergeant Howie believes himself to be the representation of Order and Authority. He never hesitates throughout the script to flex his muscle as an agent of law enforcement, and when that fails to impress, he is quick to invoke his zealous religious beliefs as a sort of secondary backing to his power. He is external power, and in his perspective, not to be questioned or ignored. But his outsider status (and frankly arrogant bullying) does not garner much in the way of sympathy or cooperation of the people of Summerisle. They are quite content in their beliefs and way of life.  And prior to the final fifteen minutes of the film, they seem like a pretty content bunch. They have a seemingly thriving agricultural community, tight-knit community socializing, and religion that advocates acceptance of their bodies and sexuality. In many regards, the inhabitants of Summerisle are living a sort of Hippie Commune ideal.  Sergeant Howie, by contrast, is uptight, stiff, and starchy, an arch-Square seeking to kill the good time of an entire group.

This is one of the keys to understanding The Wicker Man, in my opinion. The film was released in 1973, at or after the twilight of the Hippie movement.  This is post-Charles Manson, and well into the Vietnam War. Worth noting is also the rise of Contemporary Pagan religions such as Wicca (a modern reinterpretation of Celtic and British myths blended with Ceremonial Magic practices) and Asatru (which venerates Norse deities and symbolism.)  This assemblage of conditions proved to be a fertile ground to use for illustrating the clash of the different cultures in the English-speaking world. The world was reeling from a number of upheavals and changes in worldview. More than its predecessors, The Wicker Man is rather ambiguous in who is supposed to be the protagonist.

In most horror films, the lines are quite clear who you are supposed to be identifying with, whose “side you are supposed to be on.” A single exchange brilliantly illustrates this point: Police Sergeant Howie is in a tense debate with Lord Summerisle (portrayed by the inimitable Christopher Lee,) the noble responsible for the island and its people.  In two lines of dialogue, the entirety of the film’s interior tension is summarized.  When arguing about the religious practices of Summerisle, the following exchange occurs:

Sergeant Neil Howie: But what of the true God, to whose Glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of Him?

Lord Summerisle: He’s dead. He can’t complain. He had His chance and in modern parlance, “blew it.”

The inhabitants of Summerisle are not just culturally practicing folk festivals while maintaining an ambivalent, “proper” sort of British Christianity.  They have abandoned Christiantiy in its entirety, leaving the local Chapel in ruins.  They jump nude over fires, wear animal masks on festival days,and  make love freely on the beach.  Their world is radically different, and radically older than what Sergeant Howie can fathom.  He cannot understand or abide their rejection of the “faith of their fathers.”  And they will not stand an outsider presuming to judge or disrupt this life they’ve maintained for seemingly a century.

Happy May Day!

The British film industry has contributed many memorable additions to the canon of horror. The world of horror films (and cinema in general, in my opinion) are indebted to the works of Hammer and it’s stable of regulars like Sir Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. But The Wicker Man is a genuine standout amongst the pack. Without so much as a speck of gore or labored jump scare, The Wicker Man is profoundly evocative, sometimes slyly sexual, and full to the brim with symbolism and subtle commentary. Despite being dialogue heavy, it opts to hint at the it’s horrors.

For those viewers who are more sympathetic to Police Sergeant Howie, it’s easy to view the inhabitants of Summerisle as degenerated or clinging to irrational traditions. They reject the forces of conformity to the outside world, and engage in practices that are completely out the bounds of “polite society.” But for cinema-goers who are more in line with the views of Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man is an assertion of the rights of a community to self-determine, and to interpret morality through their own lens. It’s difficult to view a character like Police Sergeant Howie as anything but a would-be usurper, an alien interruption to what has been a largely successful community with deep convictions. The opposing points ask audience to examine their own beliefs, all the while offering a profoundly enjoyable (and sometimes extremely absurd) cinematic thrill.

Modern Folk Horror arguably could not exist without The Wicker Man, The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General. For my money, the moments subtle dread exhibited in films like The Apostle and Midsommar were first exhibited in The Wicker Man. It serves as an ur-text of how to create brutal tension without spilling blood or creating some elaborate, utterly improbable scene.  Despite being alienated from the rest of the English-speaking world, Summerisle feels like a completely convincing environment. For those of us who are hopelessly modern and urban, the countryside is already a foreign environment with a sometimes foreign set of mores. It’s not impossible to conceive that someone like Lord Summerisle might be a majority landowner or guiding a small rural community here and now. We seem to be reaching another one of those cultural moments where people are finding their relationship to modern technology and cultural practices as alienating. It’s not impossible to imagine a group of people longing for a more grounded, nature-centered life becoming the dominant force in a single community.

In my next few installments, I want to explore a handful of modern outgrowths of Folk Horror.  Popular horror films like Midsommar and The Witch deserve obvious attention, but there are also some “dark horse” films from outside the mainstream. Finally, before I move onto another genre, I would like to examine a film or two that might not fit the Folk Horror Revival’s definition of the genre, but exhibit all or most the character traits that make this particular field so rich and fascinating.

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

 

Threads Movie Poster

Threads

Sometimes I scan to see what’s on Shudder.  This past weekend I found Threads.  The subject of nuclear apocalypse has always interested me.  It’s dark, real and the biggest lesson I’ve learned from books and movies is that you do not want to survive.  Surviving is so much worse than just being blown away in the initial blast.  This movie did nothing to sway me from this opinion.

I want to start by saying Threads is amazing. It’s well done, the story is convincing, and the actors are so believable in their roles that by the end of this movie I needed to watch a comedy.    I went into this film fairly blind.  I read the description, saw the cover, and committed to seeing where it lead.  It takes me back to the days of visiting the video rental store.  Threads hit me hard.  Like a sucker punch to the stomach.

The movie begins with normal everyday people living their life and this is how the movie sucks you in.  You follow the lives of different people for the first half of the film.  We have a young pregnant couple, multiple families, and public servants.  You see them all react to the news of escalating tensions between the US and Russia in Iran but since we as the view knows what’s going to happen.  It’s all a matter of when.

Everybody is so damn pleasant and average.  Trying to do their best and displaying various levels of concern for a possible nuclear attack.  The civil servants are doing what they can to prepare for an attack.  People flee cities or stock up on groceries. It’s what you would expect to see.  Then the alarm sounds.  This is where the second half begins.  This is where the gut punch comes in.

As the description in the film states the bomb falls.  The people we’ve grown to love and care about are now in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  The depiction of what happens is accurate and brutal.  This is actually though where the film shines.  It doesn’t hold back and shows the brutal reality of what would happen if a nuclear bomb were to detonate.  Massive deaths occur early one but those are the lucky ones.  It’s the survivors who have the worst of it.  It’s a slow painful struggle that still results in death for most of them.  It just takes longer.  There’s radioactive dust everywhere, polluted water, and no food.  All of their homes are demolished and the fallout creates cold freezing temperatures even in July.  They flee to other cities but as you can guess are not treated very well.  Whew!  It does not get easier and the movie ends appropriately on a down note.  Just look at Ruth below is dead in her 30’s.  Radiation does a hell of a lot of damage as you can see.

Ruths Death - Threads

So here’s the final verdict.  Threads is an amazing movie, incredibly well done, but brace yourself if you’re going to watch this.  This movie is not easy, it doesn’t let up, and it actually gets worse from that image above.  It is, however, worth watching and just know if a nuclear bomb is heading your way, run out to catch it.