Top Folk Horror Movies Feature by Dan Collacott
Folk horror also referred to as rural horror is an umbrella term for horror films that center around a multitude of backwood genres, from secret cults and beliefs, folklore, paganism, repressed culture, demons right through to witchcraft. The sub genre has always been fascinated by notions of the horrors of the unseen, fear of returning to something and the dread and brutality of nature.
The baffling superstitions and ancient otherworldly mumblings cast through our ancient countryside have always opened a rich vein of source material from the late 1960s to now. Over the years these themes and meanings have evolved and grown, with the sub genre heralding it’s own enclosed ideology. Today in the climate of self-preservation, mistrust and fear that comes with Brexit and nationality, folk horror has once again found a new audience. The themes have even extended beyond Britain, recycling themselves in America, Japan and across the world.
Here are just some of the top folk horror films that have helped define this growing horror sub-genre.
10. Pet Sematary (1989)
Director Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name is a small town horror classic. Dealing with intense notions of grief and guilt set against evil secrets and demonic witchcraft.
Whilst bringing back beloved family pets by burying them in a secret mysterical pet burial ground seems like the plot of a Disney film gone a bit wrong. It soon turns out that anything that is dragged unwittingly out of the afterlife always tends to be unhappy about it! Especially when you decide to repeat the trick with a human being!
This rather grisly tale is also in line for a welcome remake.
Also watch: Jug Face (2013)
11. Dog Soldiers (2001)
Some might not consider Neil Marshall’s intensely rustic werewolf romp typical folk horror fare. But lets examine the key rural horror tropes at play. Isolated rural Scottish setting with a generous helping of supernatural folklore. Throw in the mystery pertaining to the origins and mythos of the werewolves themselves as well as numerous hidden cultural references and you’ll find that Dog Soldiers surprisingly ticks a number of key rural horror boxes.
Its self-contained low budget nature and character driven story serves as a perfect way to deliver the claustrophobia, tension and dread typified by the genre. Dog Soldiers pits man against nature, human against animal, the countryside pushing back against urbanisation.
Surprisingly mostly filmed in Luxembourg, but the aesthetic and themes all lean towards common folk tropes of uncovering a dreadful secret, exposing a world that begged to be left untouched and unhidden. The physical effects are incredible, the werewolves themselves are generally terrifying and the blood soaked set pieces deliver more than their fair share of violence and scares. It feels like a home invasion movie except the invaders are hunters and the humans inside their prey.
Dog Soldiers even delivers some delicious plot twists as Sgt. Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee) and his men fight their twisted hairy foes till the final act.
Also watch: An American Werewolf in London (1981)
9. The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers New England 1630s supernatural period tale brought us a fresh take on religious paranoia and fear told through the story of a Puritan family banished into seclusion and trying to survive on the land. Their lives crumble when the youngest child disappears, kidnapped by something evil in the woods.
Without any further spoilers, the film brings together numerous genuine tales of witches, Satanism and other demonic folklore into a disturbing and often grisly family narrative. Eggers directorial debut rakes through themes of loss and the intensity of belief whilst bringing to life infamous elements of satanic symbolism from England’s bleak and cruel past.
Also watch: Witch Finder General (1968)
7. Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
Speaking of witches and demons romping loose in the English countryside, this oft overlook folk horror classic from Piers Haggard certainly laid the groundwork for it’s modern counterparts.
The 18th century setting was filmed on location in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the picturesque beauty of this film starkly contrasts the disturbing and cruel narrative woven throughout.
The plot surrounds a demonic corpse being dug up and infecting an entire town with evil, eventually spawning a youthful and dangerous pagan cult. It bears all the hallmarks of themes of burying old ideas, young versus old, human capacity for cruelty all presented through strange imagery including gruesome body horror and a fair amount of rape and killing.
6. Village of the Damned (1960)
Wolf Rilla’s adaptation of John Wyndam’s 1957 novel Midwich Cuckoos has seen many remakes and sequels but still remains an intensely creepy and original slice of self contained rural horror.
The narrative surrounds an unknown event often referred to as a gas attack in the Village of Midwich, which puts the people and anyone who enters the village to sleep. The women later wake impregnated, before spawning creepy blonde, wide-eyed children with incredible intelligence and telekinetic powers.
Like Day of the Triffids before it, John Wyndam’s story replaces folk-lore, supernatural and religious extremism with science fiction. Wyndam also drills into cold-war paranoia, fear of invasion, political extremism and nuclear armageddon.
Despite the sci-fi slant, the central folk horror tropes of challenges to old beliefs, religious and family morality, body horror and dangers of youth and new ideals are all very much present here. The traditional values and beliefs of the villagers are challenged by the children who in turn represent progress and science.
The presence of this children inspires infighting amongst the locals culminating in the most violent of backlashes against their new more evolved generation.
Also watch: Children of the Damned (1964)
5. Antichrist (2009)
Whilst folk and rural horror is very much a Brit dominated horror niche, those wacky Americans have delivered more than their fair share to the genre.
Lars Von Trier’s infamous tale of grief, guilt and despair set against the brutality of nature garnered fairly negative headlines for it’s graphic scenes of body mutilation and intense misogyny. Often dismissed as torture porn, Antichrist has a huge number of philosophical layers at it’s often disturbing heart, scratching wildly at themes of sexual violence, notions of chaos and witchcraft. It is a often brutal and yet beautifully visual film.
Antichrist was the first of Von Trier’s depression trilogy and was conceived as a horror film but by his own admission didn’t succeed to be that (although many would disagree).
The film weaves a great deal of symbolism, mythos and surrealism and into the lives of the broken couple played by Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Von Trier is obsessed by replacing the romantic notions of forests and replacing them with a more brutal and survivalist depiction of nature. The narrative also rakes over the disquieting notions of female oppression throughout history examining the inherent evil within humanity.
Also watch: Melancholia (2011)
4. The Reptile (1966)
Director John Gilling’s Hammer gothic horror classic re-used some of the cast and sets from Plague of Zombies.
Set in the Cornish Countryside (though not filmed there) a number of locals of a small village are being killed but the local coroner keeps hiding the fact that they are dying from mysterious snake bites. After inheriting a local cottage a couple are met with hostility by the locals who are determined to keep their colonial secrets away from prying eyes. Despite their hostile reception the couple begin to finally uncover the evil that is plaguing the community.
There is some suggestion that film focuses on the fact it takes foreign outsiders to solve a very local problem, which makes sense as the theme of the outsider with dangerous ideals and new ideas weighs heavy on the Folk Horror genre.
Fellow Hammer horror classic The Witches filmed the same year is unfortunate not to be on this list and worth viewing.
Also watch: The Witches (1966)
3. The Borderlands (2013) – Also known as The Final Prayer
Taking a more found footage/documentary style, Elliot Goldner’s film tells the story of Vatican investigators looking into supernatural goings on in a church in the Devon countryside. Shot in a number of rural locations including caves, local pubs and the church at the heart of the film. The story is also told through a variety of cameras included head cams worn by the leads.
At first what they discover seems to be some kind of elaborate hoax but as they delve deeper into the belly of the beast the truth behind the strange church and village unravels to reveal a dark and ancient history. The Borderlands deals with the popular rural horror theme of forgotten beliefs, old religions and buried evil.
Filmed on a modest budget and only finished a few days before it’s premiere at the 2013 Frightfest, The Borderlands claustrophobic scares and black humour single it out as one of the most enjoyable examples of folk horror in the last five years.
Also watch: The City of the Dead (1960)
2. Kill List (2011)
Revered British director Ben Wheatley, reinvigorated the rural horror genre with this unsettling blend of extreme violence and occultism pushed through a realist and almost art house lens. Kill List earns its folk horror classification because it is set largely in the fields, forest and small villages in South Yorkshire.
The film centers on the almost darkly comic buddy movie aesthetic of two dysfunctional friends Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley). Former soldiers, occasional hit men, reunited to undertake a lucrative job to pay the bills and undo the burdens left by a previous botched overseas job.
The plot begins at a plodding and uncomfortably uneven pace, more in common with a Mike Leigh film than horror. But as Jay and Gal delve into the task at hand things begin to swiftly unravel. As each new name is ticked off the list they find themselves lunging deeper into a violent and mysterious abyss. Before long Gal and Jay are swallowed into a secretive occult world buried beneath their mundane surrounds. Throughout the film there is a series of breadcrumbs left that infer evil is never far away, but Wheatley revels in leaving most threads untied.
Kill List lurches from absurd kitchen sink drama and technicolour violence to nuanced cinematography and murky surrealism. Wheatley is not afraid to take risks and through what is left unsaid is almost as powerful what is said. Nothing is quite resolved or explained to any level of satisfaction yet the film’s powerful sense of dread and impressive characterisation offer horror fans an intense and suspenseful slice of folking evil.
Ben Wheatley’s follow up film the murderously sublime black comedy ‘Sightseer’s’ also has some folk horror elements although those are small by the full on hallucinogenic rural assault that is ‘A Field in England’.
Also watch: A Field in England (2013)
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy’s cult tale of a rural town full of secrets, rites and rituals is probably the most famous example of folk horror and one of the best horror films in it’s own right.
Set on the Scottish coast the story surrounds Sergeant Neil Howie (famously played by Edward Woodward) investigating the disappearance of a local girl who used to live on the island. The townspeople deny her existence and the more Howie digs the more he uncovers a secret pagan society with some strange beliefs and traditions (and Christopher Lee in sublimely crazy form).
Needless to say, Wicker Man is so quoted and iconic that it is hard to shed new light on the film’s genius. But it is worth noting that the 2006 remake is infamous for all the wrong reasons. Falling into the so bad it’s good category mainly due to Nicolas Cage’s giving the most bat sh*t crazy performance of his career (Maybe killing Cage will bring the missing UK bees back!)
Also watch: The car crash remake.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The Lords of Salem (2012)
Quatermass 2 (1957)