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

 

IN GENRE-VISION! Folk Horror (An Introduction)

IN GENRE-VISION is a new series dissecting and examining horror subgenres.  

There is a beauty in rural or wild environments that you do not find in urban centers.  If you are not surrounded by woods or fields on a regular basis, it can be easy to forget that this was the shape of the world prior to the rise of industry.  But the pastoral is not in and of itself good or pure, and to understand this, you must only wait until after sunset.  A quick walk through the woods at night, or drive through country roads in the hours before dawn can reintroduce (and reinforce) our most ancient human fears.

Living in a world drenched in electric light, it’s easy to forget the true definition of “dark.”   We forget that “the dark of the woods” was not a merely colorful turn of phrase, but a complete reality. That said, the daylight hours did not guarantee safety either. Wild animals, marauding people, injury, and sickness could befall our pre-modern ancestors at any time.  In a time where human settlements were spread apart by seemingly massive distances, the world outside your community could be extremely dangerous.

It is not surprising then that the folklore of so many cultures tell stories of trolls, goblins, malicious spirits, and “monstrous” humans from foreign lands. Folklore and mythology is often used to explain away mysteries, and offer a guidepost for life events in pre-modern communities.  Some of these stories have passed down the ages to us, as well as more recent stories of our world before the modern era.   It is in these stories that we find fertile ground for the genre of Folk Horror.

Our modern creative landscape is loaded with a seemingly countless number of genres and subgenres of every variety.   What distinguishes a Folk Horror film from a Slasher or “Creature Feature” type of film?  (For the record, there are examples of Folk Horror outside of film, but for the purposes of this discussion, we are going to limit ourselves to the cinematic.) Genre is something of a sticky subject in any regard.  If you’ve ever spent longer than an hour in a discussion with musicians or music “superfans,” you can appreciate the mind-boggling depths these conversations can reach. (What separates Speed Metal from Thrash Metal?  Can you tell the differences between a Trap producer from different parts of the United States?  Et cetera.)  To a casual fan these distinctions can seem absurd, but they do offer a common language to discuss themes or approaches.  And as Folk Horror seems to be resurgent in the cinematic landscape, it’s helpful to know the distinguishing characteristics.

This series of articles is not intended to be any sort of definitive list. Sources will be sighted and linked wherever possible, and there will be efforts made to not spoil any plot regardless of the age of the film.  At it’s best, Horror as a genre allows for a space to explore themes that are both pointed and timeless, sincere and sensational.  Folk Horror, at it’s best, digs deep into the soil for our fears, preconceptions, and taboos.

As such…let’s dig in.

There is no better repository of Folk Horror info online than the Folk Horror Revival (abbreviated FHR for the sakes of brevity in these articles.)  In their introductory article, From the Forests, Fields, Furrows and further: An Introduction by Andy Paciorek, they site Adam Scovall’s observation of four basic features of Folk Horror.  These elements are Landscape, Isolation, Skewed Moral Beliefs, and Happening/Summoning.  I don’t want to simply reiterate or repost their precise commentary on these points (for the interested, please go here to read this article: https://folkhorrorrevival.com/about/from-the-forests-fields-and-furrows-an-introduction-by-andy-paciorek/)  These four points serve as a good “hard and fast” set of standards to work with in talking about the genre.  It’s worth noting that the genre could also be simply described as a Horror genre film dealing with the past, specifically related to folklore.  By that metric, a vast number of non-English language films also fit the bill, albeit dealing with a sort of “horror metaphysics” outside the “norm” of the genre.   Whether or not we adhere to the FHR’s four-point scale cited by Adam Scovall or not, there is another element of Folk Horror that is important: Atmosphere.  The most common films described as Folk Horror may or may not be gory, may or may not be supernatural, may or may not be set in the distant past…but all of them lay down a thick layer of ambient dread.

The “normal” world outside of Folk Horror is governed by a predictable set of rules that most of us can follow without thinking.  The metaphysics of the Folk Horror world is often alienated from the modern, “normal” world as well as alienating its protagonists from their consensus life.  This alienation is another highly important factor in ramping up the ambient dread mentioned previously.  There is a sense that “normal rules” no longer apply, and could in fact be dangerous to attempt to keep following. Compared to other genres of horror (the aforementioned Slasher, for instance) Folk Horror does not usually allow for a simple resolution.  You might defeat the killer chasing you with a butcher’s knife, but if you can’t escape the environment where the horror is occurring, you are no safer than if you tried to cuddle with your would-be murderer.  The simple assurances of a return to normality are not guaranteed.

A curious element of Folk Horror as a genre is, for lack of a better term, a misplacement of time and culture.  If the film is set in the present, a common feature is the protagonist(s) entering a world that would have existed in years (or in some cases, centuries) before.  For films set in the past, the isolated communities or occurrences are not beholden to the standards of the day.

As a point of comparison, Folk Horror shares more in common with the nebulous genre of Psychological Thriller than it does any other genre. The difference appears to be one of scope. The terrifying world of Silence of The Lambs’ killer, Buffalo Bill, might end at the front and back door of his house. The difference? How much more oppressive and terrifying would the world of Buffalo Bill be if spanned across an entire suburban county?

In the next installment of this series, we will begin looking at the three most widely cited horror films of the genre.  And in later installments, we will examine modern iterations of Folk Horror.

For more information on the Folk Horror Revival, visit their website: https://folkhorrorrevival.com/

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.

Train To Busan Movie Poster

Train to Busan

While American studios obsess over dull remakes and franchise films South Korea is making new horror classics. Train to Busan is proof of this.  Zombies have been told 100 different ways but when done right can still be a captivating story and Train to Busan gets it right.  It understands that zombies are not the primary focus but the obstacle that brings focus to light.  No, what Train to Busan is actually about is how we can save ourselves.  From climate change, income inequality, and so many other real-life problems the way forward is to look out and care for one another.  Selfishness will ultimately be our downfall. Without being cliche, hamfisted or trite Train to Busan hits this message home.

There are a few things in the movie I want to address.  First, are they actually zombies?  *Spoiler alert* A chemical leak causes the zombie outbreak to begin.  The ensuing monster does eat people, and they do die and come back to life but this feels like a weird hybrid of traditional zombies and 28 days later.  I’m not sure if I would necessarily classify them as zombies but I can be convinced otherwise too.  In the slow vs fast zombies though these are absolutely the fast ones.  They run like crazy and I feel that it adds an element of terror.  I like fast movie zombies.  I also really like how it’s their eyes that tell you if they turned or not.

It’s a nice visual touch to see someone’s eyes turn milky white as they become a zombie.  After that, you just need to look for the group of blood-drenched maniacs to know who the zombies are.

I also enjoyed that a child is the moral center of the film.  Adults are too jaded and warped to accomplish this role but a child’s innocence is exactly what was needed.  Played perfectly by Su-an Kim she adds a good dimension to this film about how we need to work together more and get past our biases, and distrust for one another.  She could have been just another child that is zombie bait and keeps the terror alive but instead, she adds her own touch to the overall theme of the movie.  I personally love it.

Next is how the zombie’s horde.  I love how we see large amounts of zombies pressing together and breaking down doors and windows. It’s rare to actually see a horde of zombies in action. They may not be able to think and work out simple things but they can see food on the other side and break down windows just by piling against it.  This movie does a fantastic job of showing this in action and I never knew how much I need it until I saw it.  It’s a new spin on the terror that a horde of zombies can bring.

Lastly, I loved how every time it felt they would fall into a trope of classic zombie tales they would take the other path and create a new unexpected twist.  You never actually know where this movie is taking you because it truly does rely on its own originality.  Just when you think you know the movie twists in a different way and keeps you on your feet. Hard to do in a genre that’s as well told as zombies but it manages it all the same.

So overall I cannot recommend this movie enough.  It’s fun, original, fearful and honestly heartfelt.  It’s a complete movie and one that should be seen by horror fanatics everywhere. Especially if you love a zombie film.

House of Wax

House Of Wax (2005)

I had no interest in this movie when it came out and I really wanted to hate it.  I was very anti-Paris Hilton and the entire famous for being wealthy movement that was going on in the early 2000s.  Even though a big part of the marketing campaign for this film was “Watch Paris Die” I couldn’t get behind it.  However, my wife wanted to watch this and I found myself actually enjoying this film while she hated it.  Funny how things work out sometimes.

Watching this movie again I can see the problems with the story.  The most glaring mistake is that HOLY SHIT HOT WAX BURNS!!!  I love how this movie ends but in reality there would be no survivors.  Putting aside that I still love the idea of a town tucked in the woods, long forgotten, with an interesting past.  My imagination eats that up and thinks about all the ways that this could actually happen.  This is also a more elaborate, less gruesome Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Think about it.  Teens needing help, wandering into the wrong area.  Encounter a psycho hillbilly along the way.  I just kept thinking about how similar in structure these movies were.  Dark Castle films had that kind of history.  Just as Ghost Ship was Event Horizon at sea this is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with wax instead of chainsaws.

This is now the fourth Dark Castle horror film I have written about and what surprised me the most was the rather bland beginning.  Every other Dark Castle film has started with a bang, shout out to Ghost Ship, but this was just meh.  Waist-high shots of parents raising two kids where one is perfect and the other is a terror.  Truthfully the movie would have been fine without it.  I went back and watched the alternate beginning of this movie but didn’t find it to be any more impressive.  It was generic at best.  What happened Dark Castle?  You were doing one thing really well and for some reason, you abandoned it here.

I did notice though, the casting director hits it out of the park again.  Our merry cast of teenagers is Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), Nick (Chad Michael Murray), Paige (Paris Hilton), Wade (Jared Padalecki), Dalton (Jon Abrams), and Blake (Robert Ri’chard).  The difference this time is that many of the cast members have already had TV success.  Elisha Cuthbert was big from 24.  Chad Michael Murray and Jared Padalecki have also already appeared together on the Gilmore Girls.  It’s an impressive cast and they turn in good performances.  I really liked how Nick and Carly work together.  Some felt there was an incestual relationship there but I never saw that.  There were no romantic sparks between them, just siblings working together in order to survive.  They really portrayed that sibling relationship well and you got a sense that they knew when to zig and when to zag as one.

House of Wax Town

Arriving in the town is also when I began screaming at Wade.  The guy just didn’t seem to have an ounce of self-preservation in him.  Carly is plenty worried about the oddness of the people they encounter and the overall vibe of the town.  Wade, however, is a big idiot who keeps poking his head where it doesn’t belong.  As a result, he suffers what I believe to be one of the most horrific deaths of the movie.  The guy cannot read a room or in this case a town.  Classic horror victim.

The town itself is fascinating.  All done in 50’s art deco you get a creepy where is everyone type of atmosphere.  It’s my favorite part honestly.  Exploring the town and slowly discovering that everybody is wax.  The time it took for Bo and Vincent (our killers) to create this is incredible.  I want a haunted house that is just me wandering around this town.  Eventually, I make my way to the grand finale of the House of Wax.  We all want to wander around an open environment that just oozes creepy.  Can you imagine how much fun that would be?

 

Wax Figure

This is what I mean though.  This movie gets me thinking about everything except what’s going on in the movie itself.  It’s generic, predictable and overall just okay.  I don’t hate it, but it’s not anywhere close to a favorite either.  It’s just that sometimes you want a movie that you can dream yourself into.  This entire set is incredible and fun to imagine all the possibilities with.  It’s what I love.  Without it the movie is nothing and if they spent the entire time in the House of Wax I would get real bored, real quick.

So do I recommend you watch it?  If you feel like it.  I know it’s not the strongest recommendation but seriously I have seen worst.  I’ll continue to revisit it from time to time but I’m not going to suggest to my friends we sit and watch it.  It is what it is.

What do you think of House of Wax?  Was the Paris Hilton death scene good enough for you?  It was widely told that people in the theaters clapped when she died.  Let me know in the comments what you think.

Incident In Ghostland Poster

Incident in a Ghostland

I approached Incident in a Ghostland as I do with a lot of shudder movies.  Nothing more than the short description and a movie cover.  This is what jumped out at me “Something strange is happening, again. From the director of MARTYRS, comes a frightening, visceral new horror story.”  MARTYRS was a disturbing film and the director proved himself quite capable of telling a unique and compelling story.  Incident in a Ghostland does not disappoint.  It’s a home invasion story told in a unique way.  I found myself immersed and drawn into the movie so much that it took me a while to come down afterward.  I felt like I was there with this family the whole time.

The movie opens with Beth (Emilia Jones), Vera (Taylor Hickson) and their mom Pauline (Mylène Farmer) moving to a new home.  By all accounts, they are a normal, mostly happy, family.  Beth is an aspiring writer who adores H.P. Lovecraft and Vera is your average American teenager.  Naturally, they fight because they’re sisters with different priorities.

Vera and Beth

Pauline does the best she can to keep Vera from fighting with Beth while also getting moved into an old farmhouse home filled with her sister’s old junk.  It’s got room to room dolls.  All types of fabric, styles, and some even talk.  You can’t throw a rock in this house without hitting ten dolls it seems.  They are going to make room though, sell or get rid of this stuff and make it their own.  However, this is a horror movie and things do not go according to plan.

That’s all I am going to say specifically about this movie though.  I would hate to spoil anything.  The perspective of the story is what gripped me the most.  It’s fresh, unique and inspiring.  I feel like this tackles trauma and the different coping mechanisms that we develop when overcoming fear, tragedy, and horror in our normal lives.  It’s what hooked me in and kept me watching but it’s also what made me feel such raw emotion that when it was over I was done.  At this point in my life, I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of horror movies so I always take notice when a new one can still grab me like this.

Vera and Beth at the End

I’m including in this post just the two pictures of the sisters.  A before and after shot if you will.  This movie has stuck with me for days but in a way that has me wanting to watch it again.  I always resist the urge to immediately revisit a film but I think this one will be a Halloween recommendation for my friends.  The writing and the performance of Vera and Beth are just incredible.  I can’t get this movie out of my head.

If you’re reading this blog then you’re likely a horror nut like me.  If so please do check this out. I’m not sure why Shudder exclusives get misaligned but some in the horror community are trepidatious around them.  Gems like this are in there and are absolutely worth the attention of horror fans.  Check it out and let me know what you think of it in the comments below.  Are home invasions still scary or overdone?  Was the unique way of storytelling in this as effective for you as it was for me?  I’d love to hear your opinions.

House on Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

The next film I went back and revisited as part of the Dark Castle series was House on Haunted Hill.  This was the first film Dark Castle did and for me it still holds up.  I can see the flaws in it such as pacing, and now some dated CGI effects but the story itself is still entertaining.  I really like the cat and mouse game this movie sets up between Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush) and his lovely wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen).  Everyone else is just unwilling participants in this odd game they have created to frighten and kill each other.

Opening the movie with the claymation credits while Marilyn Manson’s remake of Sweet Dreams plays does a good job of setting the overall feel and atmosphere of what’s to come.  Once the movie begins it goes off with a bang as all Dark Castle movies do.  We are shown an insane asylum where a doctor is clearly performing experiments on the patients.  He is performing surgery with no anesthetic while a nurse films the whole thing.  That alone is terrifying and disgusting.  Somehow though, it’s never really explained, the patients get out of their rooms and run amok through the asylum.  Just as the good Dr. Vanacutt (Jeffrey Combs) is about to die he throws a switch that locks everyone inside.  Mayhem ensues and we quickly learn that all but 5 people die inside that hospital.  It’s additionally not explained how these 5 people got out.  Called out sick that day perhaps?

In the first fifteen minutes of the film, we learn about the history of the house, about the Price’s messed up relationship, and set the scene for what will be the rest of the movie.  It’s a lot to cover in a condensed time span but they do an excellent job of it.  It never feels rushed but still conveys all of the necessary information.  We then arrive at the house and it’s beautifully imposing sitting on the cliffs somewhere in California.

Vandecutt Asylum for the Criminally Insane

Now the fun can begin.  The guests arrive to a very panicked and frantic man named Pritchett (Chris Kattan) and he clearly wants to get his money, and leave.  This is the first time we see everyone together and start to get a feel for who they all are. In typical form for Dark Castle, this movie has an amazing cast.  We have Eddie (Taye Diggs), Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), Sara (Ali Larter), and Melissa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras).  These four with Pritchett and their wonderful hosts the Prices make up the cast of characters for the rest of the movie.  Whoever the casting director was for this movie does not get enough credit.  Every actor is perfectly cast for the role they play.

House on Haunted Hill Cast

From here on out it’s a question of what’s real and what’s not.  Stephen absolutely has rigged the place with fake scares but there are real ghosts moving about as well.  This is what I ultimately love about this film.  It’s beautiful, it has believable twists and turns and you’re never 100% sure if someone is dead, or faking it.  That is until you see them dismembered.  Then it’s safe to say their dead.

The shots of ghosts and the supernatural are beautiful in this film.  It’s almost experimental filmmaking at times with how they portray the ghosts and shot the scenes of fright.  Visually I find it fascinating and the cinematography keeps me hooked in.  The visuals of the spirits are my favorite part of this film and I have genuinely watched people jump and get further from the television when Dr. Vannacutt shakes his head rapidly on his way to get Evelyn.  It’s chilling and if I ever saw that myself I would scream in terror.

Haunted Hill Spirtis

My one criticism of this movie is that the ending was a bit rushed.  It feels like the writer wasn’t sure what to do and then in the final 10 minutes just says “And now chaos” for no reason but to kill a bunch of people off.  It destroys the atmosphere and probably could have been handled better.  It’s a rather unsatisfying and messy ending.

It was nice to revisit this film and still enjoy it as much as I remember.  I would recommend this to most people and overall I find that the positives of this film far outweigh the cons of a rushed ending.  Everybody turns in an incredible performance and I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Rush playing a very clear homage to Vincent Price.  He was incredible and every scene he was in had an extra oomph to it.  It’s been 20 years and I still love this movie.  What did you think of it though?  Did you enjoy this film, feel like it was just okay or hate it?  Let me know in the comments.  I’d love to hear your take on The House on Haunted Hill.

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.