7 folk horror movies to watch after Men
From 'The Wailing' to 'The Witch', these creepy thrillers are a window into rural life like you’ve never seen it before.
Still from 'The Wickerman'
After taking us through the dystopian near-futures in Ex-Machina, Annihilation and Devs, Alex Garland’s latest movie venture draws upon the fears of the past. The A24 thriller has Jessie Buckley — of I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) fame — playing a widow haunted by both her husband’s suicide and multiple incarnations of Rory Kinnear. But if you can’t get enough of those uncanny countryside vibes, Men is a great entry point into one of the most distinctly creepy of British sub-genres — the folk horror.
Although steeped in elements of legend and tradition, “folk horror” is actually a relatively modern term, first coined by the film trade paper Kine Weekly to describe The Blood on Satan’s Claw, an 18th-century tale of possessed rural teens, witchcraft and demonic one-eyed skulls.
There’s since been a renaissance of films in which isolated pastoral landscapes hide a multitude of sins, typically involving some form of torture, devil worshipping or human sacrifice, and for that we are grateful. From The Wailing to The Witch, here are seven of film history’s most wickedly haunted folk horror movies.
1. Witchfinder General (1968)
Arguably the daddy of all folk horror, Witchfinder General emerged at the tail end of a counter-culture movement that sparked a renewed interest in all things occult-ish. The sorcery here, however, is all in the depraved mind of Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), a sadistic opportunist who capitalises on the unrest of the ongoing civil war by torturing suspected witches for money. Director Michael Reeves certainly doesn’t skimp on violence and bleakness — playwright Alan Bennett once described it as the most “morally rotten film” he’d ever seen. The cult classic concludes as harrowingly as it begins: with the piercing screams of a female victim. You’ve been warned!
2. The Wicker Man (1973)
“All folk horror that comes after The Wicker Man owes it something,” Alex Garland recently argued, referring, of course, to the 1973 original and not the farcical 2006 remake in which a meme-spawning Nicolas Cage dials the insanity up to eleven while dressed as a bear. This film, a third of the folk horror sub-genre’s unofficial “unholy trinity”, remains as deeply unnerving half a century on from its release. Christopher Lee is terrifying as the Pagan leader who lures Edward Woodward’s committed Christian cop to the remote Scottish island that has a novel approach to harvesting. Director Robin Hardy skilfully builds up a slow-burning sense of foreboding before dramatically, and literally, setting things ablaze with an unforgettable last-minute twist.
3. Kill List (2011)
Few filmmakers have done more for the folk horror tradition than Ben Wheatley. In between his gritty kitchen sink dramas and random Hollywood ventures (The Meg 2? For what reason?), the British director has found a penchant for terror in mid-17th century magic mushroom trips and a haunted Bristol forests. But it’s his first warped venture into the English countryside that remains his crowning glory. Much of Kill List takes place in the Sheffield suburbs as two soldiers-turned-hitmen (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) are tasked by a shadowy client with killing a priest, librarian and MP. Little do they know that a truly unhinged woodland ritual awaits them.
4. The Witch (2015)
Some cinemagoers accused A24 of flouting the Trade Descriptions Act by marketing The Witch (or The VVitch to be more precise) as a straight-forward horror. But while it’s true there’s nothing to make you jump out of your seat, there’s plenty that will get under your skin. In a strikingly self-assured debut, director Robert Eggers conjures up a nightmarish vision of 17th-century New England, in which a banished puritan family is plagued by the blackest kind of magic.
In her first big screen appearance, Anya Taylor-Joy makes a powerfully magnetic initial impression as a suspected witch who is forced to do everything from goring her own family members to flirting with a demonic goat. A wild ride if there ever was one.
5. The Wailing (2016)
Of course, while it’s as quintessentially English (and typically as white) as a Richard Curtis rom-com, folk horror has also been embraced on international soil. The Wailing, a South Korean thriller takes an unconventional approach, incorporating elements of the zombie flick, film noir and cop drama across 156 crazy and compelling minutes. Is roots are still firmly entrenched in the countryside, namely the rural village of Gokseong, where a mysterious virus causes its population to brutally murder their entire families. Can Kwak Do-won’s bungling policeman defeat whichever evil entity is responsible before his young daughter becomes the latest unwilling serial killer? Well, when was the last time you saw a K-horror with a happy ending?
6. La Llorona (2019)
Not to be confused with the middling The Curse of Llorona (courtesy of The Conjuring universe), this lesser-known gem cleverly adds a contemporary political spin to an ancient Mexican legend. Bearing all the magical realist hallmarks of director Jayro Bustamante, La Llorona is inspired by the Silent Holocaust perpetrated by Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt in the early 80s. But while the dictator’s crimes against humanity went unpunished in the real world, his fictional counterpart finds himself terrorised by the spirits of the native Mayan people he brutally slaughtered.
7. Lamb (2021)
In this atmospheric folk horror set across the vast landscape of rural Iceland, Noomi Rapace is heart-breaking as a grieving mother compensating for the loss of her daughter by babying the sheep-human hybrid discovered in her barn. Who hasn’t been there? It’s an outlandish premise that moves at its own suitably glacial pace: first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson gets you accustomed to Lamb’s disquieting picture of domesticity in increments, like a frog in a gradually boiling bath. It’s a fable that could persuade even the most committed of carnivores to start eating Quorn.