All this month we’ve taken you back and forth through time and stuck you in loops and paradoxes, but for the final day of our “Leap Fear” month we’re going to take a look at a specific point in time, one that’s not generally associated with the horror genre, the “Middle Ages.” Usually films set in medieval times are fantasy or historical epics because people often romanticize that period as a time of brave knights or wizened wizards. It was also time of war, political tyranny, strife, and noxious plagues that wiped out entire communities. Add to that the monsters and demons of medieval folklore, and you’ve got a great back drop for a horror film.
In this list, we’ll look at 10 films that highlight the many diverse things you can do with medieval horror. We’ve got horror comedies, a vampire film, a zombie film, folk horror, and more. Many of them share common traits like cursed books, demons, and witches.
10. Dracula Untold (2014)
The idea of doing a movie that ties together the real world historical elements of Dracula with the mythology of vampires is a potent one, and this film could have been fascinating if it had done that. It does transport us back in time to when Vlad Dracula was a real world figure, but it unfortunately it casts him as a somewhat tragic hero. His most infamous deeds are written off with an opening montage and narration that basically says, “All those people he impaled? Forget about them! Drac is a great guy who loves his family and just wants to defend his country from the Turks.” The film could have been much more powerful if it was about a metaphorical monster who gives up the last shreds of his humanity and becomes a literal one to save his family and country.
It does have some fun elements though. The way they handle a vampire’s bat transformation is interesting, Luke Evans is pretty charismatic as the title character (especially when they allow him to be monstrous), and Charles Dance is pretty great as a Count Orlock style vampire.
9. Season of the Witch (2011)
In this film, we go back to the time of the Crusades as we follow two knights Behman (Nicholas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) on their exploits through the desert and then back to Europe after they become disillusioned with war and desert their army. Once there, they must deal with a monstrous plague ravaging the country side and regain their freedom by delivering a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery.
The film suffers from a bit of an identity crisis in that it wants to be an adventure movie and a horror one. Plus, Cage is woefully underused and given little time to “rage.” Perlman and Foy are great though and the climax at the seemingly abandoned monastery is a lot of fun.
8.The Undead (1957)
This is the first of three Roger Corman directed films in our list and it’s one of the more surreal films the prolific, “Pope of Pop Cinema” has ever directed. It’s a black and white movie that opens with an introduction by the devil himself. Then we meet two academics who send a prostitute back in time to one of her past lives via hypnosis. Once there, she becomes the target of an evil witch trying to steal her love and must call upon another more congenial sorceress for aid. The film becomes even more bizarre when one of the men who sent her back in time joins her in the past.
The Undead suffers from low budget effects and some silly writing, but there’s a fascinating fever dream quality to the movie, which is enhanced by the score. And Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) who plays the villainous witch, Livia, is pretty great in the film
7. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
This Spanish film is the first movie on our list that brings a threat from the past into the modern day. In it, members of the ancient order of Knights Templar are executed in the past following charges of heresy and Satan worship. Then in the present they are resurrected as malevolent and hungry zombies. They can’t see their prey though because of the birds that pecked out their eyes when they were executed.
The film has some fantastic visuals especially in the way the zombie Templars are presented. It feels like a mash up of a George Romero style zombie film and the classic Satanic films of the ’70s. It would probably be higher in my list if I hadn’t been forced to watch the version on Amazon Prime, which is dubbed in English and censors some of the violence, a lesbian romance, and a rape scene in ways that are jarring to a modern audience.
6. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
This is the second of three Roger Corman directed movies to make our list and it’s one of his best. In the film, we’re taken back in time to a plague ridden village in medieval Italy. The hamlet is rule by the despotic, Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) who offers his powerful friends, and some villagers he’s looking to corrupt, his castle walls as shelter from the plague. It’s not really a refuge though because Prospero’s “guests” are just playthings in a series of cruel machinations that culminate in a masquerade ball full of debauchery and the visit of a mysterious red robed figure.
This film still works today because of Price’s portrayal of Prospero and what it has to say about the wealthy and powerful. I would love to see it remade by someone like Ari Aster who could make the film even disturbing and haunting.
5. The Raven (1963)
When you have a film that stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff that adapts Edgar Allan Poe’s classic titular poem, and features a screenplay by Richard Matheson you expect it to be a pretty creepy and horrific film. The Raven though, directed by Roger Corman, is a goofy, horror comedy in which Price and Lorre play medieval . . . wizards!
It was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise because both Price and Lorre are so great at comedy, and they’re clearly having a lot of fun with their roles. The film feels like a mash up of Abbott and Costello, Harry Potter, and a classic Hammer horror film. It’s movie that can be appreciated by adults, but it’s also a film you can show younger kids who are looking for fun and spooky fare.
4. Knights of Badassdom (2013)
In this movie we get a menace from the past coming forward in the form of a demon summoning, medieval, songbook that resurfaces in the present day, but we also get some metaphorical time travel in that it’s used to wreak havoc at the big event of a group of Dungeons & Dragons style LARPERS (live action role players). It’s a set up that makes for a pretty enjoyable horror comedy that’s improved upon by a great cast. Game of Throne’s Peter Dinklage is especially good. He steals every scene he’s in. Plus, if you love heavy metal (like I do) The main character, Joe (Ryan Kwanten, True Blood), is the lead singer in a metal band, and metal plays a fun role in the film’s climax.
I really enjoyed Knights of Badassdom, but I hear Joe Lynch’s unreleased director’s cut is more bloody, twisted, and a lot funnier. I hope it gets released some day.
3. Black Death (2010)
Director Christopher Smith’s (Triangle) film takes viewers back to 1348 and is set in a plague ridden England. It’s the story of a doubting monk (Eddie Redmayne) who decides to lead a bishop’s envoy (Sean Bean) and a group of soldiers to a mysterious plague free village. The trek there is full of blood, violence, and the paranoid tension that comes from dealing with virulent diseases, but the terror really ramps up when the group reaches the village.
Black Death uses all the classic characteristics of folk horror to maximum effect, but what makes it especially resonant is it’s a meditation on the physical and emotional violence caused by fanatical belief systems.
2. Army of Darkness (1992)
Director Sam Raimi’s film, which transports Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) back to the middle ages to confront the menace of the Necronomicon and the Deadites, is the best horror comedy on our list, and one of the best horror comedies of all time.
There were hints of the character Ash would become in Evil Dead 2, but Army of Darkness is really where he becomes the smart mouth, not too bright, egocentric monster fighter we all know and love. And we love him because of Campbell’s charisma and skill at comedy. We see that at work in the often screwball style comedy that happens when Ash is attacked by Deadites and his delivery of so many classic one-liners.
1. The Head Hunter (2019)
In The Head Hunter director Jordan Downey, star Christopher Rygh, and the rest of the crew transport viewers to a violent, medieval fantasy world that’s been ravaged by fantastic creatures. The film follows the exploits of a monster hunter (credited as Father) out to behead the beast that murdered his daughter. As the story unfolds viewers start to wonder what Father’s greatest enemy really is; the cunning beast lurking in the dark for the right moment to strike? Or his obsessive quest for vengeance?
The movie is powerful, creepy, and fun. What makes it truly astounding is it was made with a budget of approximately $30,000! It doesn’t feel that way though because it trusts the power of the audience’s imagination. We only see the aftermath of Father’s monster battles and the shadow of things like a dragon. Those things are difficult and costly to bring to life so the crew give viewers the freedom to envision them as they see fit. And what the film lacks in special effects it more than makes up for in character and acting. That’s because Rygh is phenomenal as Father. He may spend most of the movie alone and has very little dialogue, but the way he expresses Father’s grief, rage, terror, and physical pain is amazing.
What’s your favorite evil terror from the medieval era? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, or the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group!