There is a special magic in the folk tale. Modern media can give you great stories, for sure. But folklore is in our bones. There’s something about an organic legend that just means more, as though its oral history or long lifespan gives it more worth. It’s been imbued by the people who tell it. The Field Guide to Evil is a collection of those types of stories. It’s several different folklore-based short films, assembled by the people behind The ABCs of Death. Each segment comes from a different culture, so the film really is a global project. Before I begin let me say: overall this film was a joy to watch. If you’re into folklore or if you just want to see horror by people who know what they’re doing, don’t miss this one.
The Sinful Women of Hollfall
Directed by Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz (Goodnight Mommy)
I spoke to many people who said the first entry into the collection was their favorite, and I can definitely see why. Sinful Women is everything that this collection should be; rooted in deep cultural folklore but given a new, horrifying narrative.
Sinful Women follows two young girls in a rural, all-women community somewhere in 1500s Eastern Europe. The two begin a romantic relationship, which goes against the heavily religious morals of the group. The protagonist’s mother warns that a “sinful” lifestyle will summon a demon known as “The Trud,” and sure enough, bad things start happening to the pair. I loved this segment’s natural beauty and superstitious tone. Each member of the cast was exquisite, and the monster design stayed with me after the screening. Plus, this segment’s ending was a rare treat in short horror films, check it out to see why. For gorgeous camera work, engrossing scares, and an elegantly simple story, I’d give this one a 9/10.
Haunted by Al Karisi, The Childbirth Djinn
Directed by Can Evrenol (Housewife)
Alright, if a “demon of childbirth” doesn’t scare you right off the bat, maybe this segment isn’t for you. Nor, I guess, is horror in general, because you are the bravest person in the universe.
Al Karisi is the story of a young pregnant girl who takes care of an elderly invalid. The story hints that this young girl has a husband somewhere, but he isn’t around. Nor, really, is anyone else. When the young girl takes a forbidden family charm into her possession, a wicked spirit enters her home and begins ruining her life. Even worse? She has her baby moments after the spirit appears. This short calls upon a real terror, the idea of needing to care for others while being completely alone. It also uses the classic horror trope of a “goat-thing” in a very subtle and terrifying way. For low-key effects, a sense of hopelessness, and one of the spookiest silhouette shots I’ve seen in a while, I’d rate this film 8/10.
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The Kindler and the Virgin
Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure)
We are thrown into this segment instantly, when a ghost appears to an aging, lower-class worker. She promises him wealth, wisdom, and strength, just as long as he eats three freshly dead human hearts. The visuals of the ghost are very unsettling in this film. Her makeup and wardrobe is an unearthly pale, and her movements are hauntingly alien. And when the cobbler gets to eating the hearts, well, buckle up. Maybe skip this one if gore bothers you. For interesting imagery but a bit of an expectable plot, plus a somewhat anti-climatic ending, I’d give this one a 6/10.
Beware the Melonheads
Directed by Calvin Reeder (V/H/S)
This part was…weird. The story of a family trapped in the mountains of the Midwest US with a group of killer children is already pretty out there. Now, add the fact that these children have massive, grotesque heads and you’ve got a very odd little urban legend. I really liked this short film, but that doesn’t mean I think it completely worked. The humor felt out of place, but definitely had me laughing. The visual of melonheaded kids was disturbing, but I don’t think it served the overall story. For trying to give us a really original monster-story, but not always succeeding, I’d give this one a 7/10.
Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan?
Directed by Yannis Veslemes
Ok, now THIS film was appropriately weird. Panagas’s protagonist is a hapless goblin who wanders up from Hell to celebrate Christmas with humans. The true horror of this story doesn’t come from the goblin, but from what the humans do when they find out he’s not of their world. They torture him and humiliate him, culminating in a wild and revolting act that will have you really feeling for the poor creature. Don’t worry though, the humans get what’s coming to them, just in more surreal way than you might expect. For a darkly humorous portrayal of cult mentality and a seriously lovable monster, I give this film an 8/10.
Palace of Horrors
Directed by Ashim Ahluwalia
This short does a great job feeling like an urban legend. It’s briefly narrated, shot in black and white, and comes from the perspective of a pretty average guy. The film starts in India, some time around the early 20th century, and tracks a kind of collector. He’s a collector of scarred or deformed people, a friend of P.T. Barnum who provides the circus-maker with “freaks.” Out narrator is his assistant. Things go bad when the collector hears of a person he’s not allowed to see. A “holy being,” according to the locals. His need for freakier sights leads to him disobeying his tour guides and, well not coming out great. For a spooky take on greed and the always effective “unseen monster,” I’d give this film a 7/10.
A Nocturnal Breath
Directed by Katrin Gebbe
I thought this one was the weakest film in the compilation. To be fair, By the time this movie came on, I was getting somewhat restless. It felt like we had seen a lot of movies already, and I was kind of ready to leave the theater. That said, this movie did nothing to help that lethargic feeling.
It’s about two farmers, brother and sister, who encounter a disease-carrying evil spirit. Now, the sensory horror in this short is great. The spirit takes the form of a rat that crawls into your mouth, an effect that got audible retching noises from the whole audience. But the movie’s slow burn as the spirit killed off the livestock didn’t engage the audience. Plus, the main characters didn’t do much but fight, and though that wasn’t annoying, I didn’t want to like either of them, thus making me not to worries about their circumstances. For a slow possession story without much fun, I’ll give this one a 4/10.
The Cobblers’ Lot
Directed by Peter Strickland (In Fabric)
The Field Guide to Evil ended with the most ambitious movie in its menu, and I was thankful for this. Cobbler’s Lot was so stylized, so visually jolting, that it brought me right back into the film for an excellent finale. This movie is the most fairy-tale-inspired in the collection. It’s about two shoemaking brothers in love with the same princess. They both wind up in an enchanted forest in an attempt at winning her love. There, they both face tests of their morality and, well, they fail. Spoilers?
This movie takes its design from silent movie geniuses like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, both in the camera work and in the actors performances. They even use silent movie dialogue cards. Still, at no point in this movie did I feel that what they were doing was just for the novelty. This was a story that HAD to be told like a silent movie, from the stage-like quality of its sets down to the eyeliner each actor wore. And for that reason, I think it was my favorite. For a consistent and whimsical visual nature, a brilliant use of light, and an honest-to-gosh case of movie magic, I’m giving this one a 10/10.
As I mentioned before, I really enjoyed experiencing this collection. Though I did think it could have been shorter, the compilation format was fun to watch, and the curation of the movies was excellent. They were in a great order, stacked so that similar segments were never close too each other. The Field Guide folks deserve a round of applause for putting this together. They strove to combine elements of cultures from around the world, and in the end, they proved that when if comes to fear, we all have things in common. If you get the chance, absolutely check out their work.