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.

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! 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! 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

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 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

 

Downrange Movie Poster

Downrange

 

 

Downrange is the perfect film if you want terror, realism, and absolutely no moral to the story.  It’s a fun action-horror flick that while I enjoyed by the end of it I was left thinking “What was supposed to be my take away from this movie?”.  I’m not at all sure what the point of the movie was other than to have a madman killer.  It’s suspenseful, it’s intriguing but there’s no reason given for any of it, and the ending is a bit unsatisfying for me.  Let me try and break it down and we’ll see if we can’t come up with something together.

We have a group of friends all traveling together in a remote area of what I assume is the U.S.  The location is pretty vague but it’s okay because this works for any remote area in any part of the world. We have Todd (Rod Hernandez), his girlfriend Sara (Alexa Yeames), and their friends traveling with them Jodi (Kelly Connaire), Keren (Stephanie Pearson), Eric (Anthony Kirlew), and Jeff (Jason Tobias).  Six college-age kids all traveling along when their tire blows out.  Fortunately, they do know how to change a tire but this is when the chaos begins.  Somewhere, hiding out in the distance is a sniper picking them off.  Their tire didn’t go out on accident and now they are prey for this lunatic who just wants to shoot people.

No joke that’s 90% of the movie.  They seek cover behind a car, or tree and try to figure their way out of this.  One of the women comes from a military family and she proves to be the most useful but even still, they are at a severe disadvantage.  Since they are in the middle of nowhere too their phones get spotty coverage.  Some places it barely works, and in most, it doesn’t at all.  There is no motive for the killer.  Even when a police presence is made the gunman turns on them too.  So we have a group of teens in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A gunman who just wants to kill because of reasons unknown and that’s our movie.

I loved the acting, cinematography, and directing.  There needed to be more of a story though.  It’s the writing that lets this movie down.  I’m all for minimalism but it’s just kids figuring out how to get away from an accurate, skilled sniper.  Not much of a chance really.

There is suspense and it is interesting to see the clever ways that the six-stranded kids try to disable the sniper so that they can get away.  I can’t say I hated the film but it is bleak.  I don’t want to give away the ending but I was left with an empty feeling of why.  Why did this happen?  Why was this guy shooting people?  It felt senseless and maybe that was the point.  I would have a hard time recommending this to most people because I’m not sure who the audience is for this.

Have you seen this on Shudder?  What did you think?  I’d love to get a different viewpoint on this movie as I am sure there are those who love it and I want to hear from them.  Let’s hear your opinions in the comments.