Folk horror is all about pagan rituals, witchy ceremonies, ancient symbols, and blood sacrifice. Recent films such as Hereditary (2018), Kill List (2011), Wake Wood (2011), and the soon-to-be-released Midsommar take these themes and apply them to the present day, showcasing the power of ancient magic in a world ruled by technology. But what about the films that take the past to examine the origins of such rituals and traditions, when dark magic seemed to lurk in every corner and was merely a part of everyday life?
These seven films pay homage to their folkloric roots, with settings far back in history to when even speaking about witches meant banishment from your village.
7. Hagazussa (2019)
15th-century Austria is ripe for folklore picking, as demonstrated in Lukas Feigelfeld’s 2019 film, Hagazussa. Told in a series of vignettes, we follow Albrun as she grows up an outcast from her village in the Austrian Alps. She and her mother have been labeled witches and must live on the outskirts on society. Whether or not they are witches is up for interpretation, at least in the film’s beginning, but there is a wealth of pagan iconography in their home, from bunches of herbs hanging on the walls, a bubbling cauldron hanging over a fire, and a black cat curled at their feet.
Fiegelfeld dug deep into folklore to tell a story not about magic, but about years of trauma and how it affects the psyche. This is not just a tale of creepy witches stalking the woods. It is about what happens to those accused of being witches and their torment, from harassment to sexual assault. He also taps into the imagery of women taking psychedelic mushrooms and connecting with nature in an otherworldly way. These mushrooms allow Albrun to disconnect with her reality and release her rage in horrifying ways. Fiegelfeld digs into the common iconography and preconceived ideas about the witch film and creates a haunting, yet quiet, tale about the power of folklore.
6. Cry of the Banshee (1970)
Vincent Price stars in Gordon Hessler’s 1970 Cry of the Banshee as an evil witch hunter who lords over an Elizabethan village with an iron fist. He’s raised his children to hate witches, too, which means even whisperings of witchcraft lead to violent punishments, criminal trials, and death. But when they massacre almost an entire coven of witches, there is hell to pay from their leader, Oona (Elizabeth Bergner). Hell hath no fury like a witch scorned, after all.
The film opens with a borderline-orgiastic ritual of witches chanting in ancient tongues with men hiding in the bushes, whispering, “more treason against God.” Horses rush into the scene and witches are violently murdered, setting the tone for a very violent 83 minute film. It doesn’t let up from there, so if you want violence in your folk horror, Cry of the Banshee is the way to go.
5. November (2018)
The gorgeously-shot November is an introduction to Estonian folklore. Similar to Hagazussa, it is presented as a series of vignettes that introduce a plethora of strange creatures. There are the usual suspects, such as ghosts, witches, and the Devil, but they are presented in beautifully-unusual ways unlike anything American audiences have seen. Ghosts appear in ethereal dresses and march through the woods to visit loved ones, and the Devil is an old, dirty man who is summoned at a crossroad. Then, there are figures like the “kratt,” servants built by peasants out of odds and ends. One such kratt is made from a cow skull and three sticks, jerkily wandering the village to do his master’s bidding. It is unnerving in its movement, but to the villagers, this is nothing new.
November was shot in black and white, which adds to its magical atmosphere. It is a love story, a sad story, a disgusting story, and a fairy tale all wrapped into a strange package. It is a perfect example of folk horror looking back to its roots and showcasing the importance folklore once had in understanding the world’s tragedies.
4. Onibaba (1964)
Most of the picks on this list are based on Western conceptions on folklore, but East Asia has its own rich canon of myths and legends. In Japanese folklore, the story of onibaba is about a mask that rips off the flesh of whoever wears it. The 1964 film of the same name, directed by Kaneto Shindo, adapts this story into an erotic horror classic. It is a story about survival, loneliness, and the consequences of desperation.
Two women (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) are living in the Japanese countryside during a civil war, killing soldiers and stealing from their corpses to survive. A young soldier enters their small, violent world, throwing their dynamic into chaos as the younger woman begins to sleep with him. Jealousy leads the second woman to don a demon mask to frighten them and end the affair. But this mask is more malicious than it appears as it binds itself to the woman’s face. This is a must-watch for Japanese horror fans, especially those who want to learn more about the genre’s history.
3. Haxan (1922)
Folk horror in film has always been present, as seen in the 1922 documentary-hybrid film Haxan. It is director Benjamin Christensen’s attempt to understand 15th-century witchcraft and what could have caused such hysteria around witch hunts. His hypothesis: so-called witches suffered from psychosis. It is a meticulous document about the history of demons, the types of demons, and how they appeared in medieval media. It then moves to witchcraft, relying on terrifying reenactments to attempt to portray the truth behind the folklore. Even in 2019, Haxan is a harrowing documentary that still invokes an uncanny, uncomfortable fear.
2. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
Piers Haggard’s 1971 film The Blood on Satan’s Claw is the first film that was coined “folk horror.” It takes place in a 17th-century village where strange events begin to unfold after a mysterious corpse is discovered in a field by an unsuspecting farmer. The corpse’s skull has only one eye and is covered in fur. But before it can be further examined, it disappears. Then, the village children and teens start acting weird and sprouting claws. This unearthed corpse has revealed an ancient evil that has infected an entire village, turning its children into a group of violent creatures. The Judge may vehemently ask, “are you so bent on reviving ancient horrors?” but sometimes it just can’t be avoided.
1. The VVitch (2015)
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the Devil utters in Robert Eggers’ 2015 indie horror hit, The VVitch. He offers young Thomasin (Anna Taylor Joy) a life of freedom as a witch in exchange for devoutly serving him. And in a time where she already has to devoutly serve God, why not change sides and have a little more fun?
Shot with impeccable attention to detail, Eggers’ weaves a tale set in New England in 1630, a time which was rife with paranoia, religious zealots, and a lot of death. Don’t worry, The VVitch has all of that and more. A family, led by William (Ralph Ineson), is banished from their village on religious grounds and have placed their new farm on the edge of a dark forest. What lurks in the forest? A witch, of course. This witch is the pinnacle of witches: she is an old crone with a hooked nose, wispy hair, and a desire for innocent flesh. She pounds a baby into a pulp with a butter churner and slathers a broom with the pulp. It is gnarly and it is a kind of witchy that Urban Outfitters won’t show you. That’s just one example of the terrors that await you in The VVItch. Eggers captures the fear and anxiety that permeated society during this time period, and creates an empowering folk tale about embracing the darkness.
What’s your favorite folk horror film that takes to the past? Is there another film you’d like to see on this list? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!