Bored with 1980s-style slashers? Do zombies leave you cold? Find found footage a bore? If you’re a horror movie fan, you’re all too familiar with the malaise that can set in when one subgenre dominates the scene for too long. So, if you’re looking for some new frights with more style and intellectual weight, we suggest you look to the past and pledge your soul to the cult of the folk-horror revival.
The first wave of folk horror represents a break with Gothicism in British horror films in the late 1960s and early ’70s characterized by themes of witchcraft and the supernatural. Fifty years later, and in much the same social and political climate that inspired the first wave, folk horror is back. Consider this your initiation into an ancient order.
1. Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)
Anyone with an interest in folk horror should immediately seek out the silent classic Häxan. The oldest film on this list, Häxan is ostensibly a documentary tracing the history of witchcraft and the persecution of supposed witches through history. Nevertheless, you’d be mistaken to think this film is anything but a horror movie. Containing some of the most disturbing imagery ever committed to film, its influence remains palpable nearly a century after its release.
2. Night Of The Demon (1957)
Based on M.R. James’ story Casting The Runes, Night Of The Demon stars Dana Andrews as John Holden, an American psychologist on a mission to expose a satanic cult responsible for the death of a British colleague. Skeptical Holden soon finds himself caught in a web of mystery and black magic. There’s no better authority than Martin Scorsese, who lists this as one of the most terrifying films ever made.
3. Witchfinder General (1968)
Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General is the first of three films that are considered the “unholy trinity” of folk horror. Set during the English Civil War, Vincent Price stars as Matthew Hopkins, a self-styled witch hunter with a mandate to snuff out sorcery. An unremitting villain, Hopkins exploits the chaos of the conflict to line his pockets and indulge his more prurient instincts in the name of the church. Price is at his diabolical best.
4. The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)
The second of folk horror’s three pillars is 1971’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw. In the film, a farmer unleashes a curse when he tills up a misshapen skull with a single cloudy eye. Thereafter, a series of bizarre events befall the village’s children. Inexplicably growing patches of coarse fur on their bodies, the kids fall under the spell of the devilish vixen Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), who’s bent on aiding an ancient evil that intends to manifest itself piecemeal on the flesh of the innocent.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
This film is ground zero for any serious study of folk horror. The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as pious police Sgt. Howie, who’s determined to solve the disappearance of a young girl on the Hebridean island of Summerisle. Infuriated by the islanders’ obstructive nature and strange rituals, Howie seeks out the island’s namesake Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who reveals the origin of the island’s pagan ways. In a shocking twist, Howie learns he’s been drawn to the island as a human sacrifice. Unless you’re a masochist, we suggest you skip the 2006 remake.
6. A Field In England (2013)
Like 1968’s Witchfinder General, A Field In England takes place during the English Civil War. Shot in lush black and white, the film focuses on a band of captured soldiers forced to search for a buried treasure in a field of hallucinogenic mushrooms. With sequences reminiscent of David Lynch’s best work, the film is surreal, dreamlike and punctuated with blasts of unexpected violence.
7. The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is arguably the key film in the folk-horror revival. Fusing all the elements of atmosphere, historical setting and the supernatural, The Witch is the type of film that works its way into your psyche and never lets go. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a 15th-century Puritan family banished to the backwoods of New England. When her infant brother disappears under her care, the family succumbs to paranoia and violence. An unexpected revelation gives this film a deliciously shocking dénouement.
8. The Wailing (2016)
Korean director Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing takes folk horror out of its typical Western European setting and makes it uniquely his own. The appearance of a stranger portends tragedy when a series of murders and a deadly illness plague the sleepy mountain village of Gokseong. When policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) finds his daughter ill with the mysterious sickness, he employs some unorthodox means to save her. With an opening sequence that lulls viewers into thinking they’re about to see another by-the-numbers zombie flick, The Wailing slowly transforms into something far more disturbing and tragic.
9.The Ritual (2017)
Released theatrically in England and on Netflix in the rest of the world, David Bruckner’s The Ritual effectively combines human drama with the supernatural. Four college buddies go hiking through rural Sweden following the murder of their friend in a store robbery. Leaving the trail (always a bad idea), the group stumbles on evidence of the supernatural and a deadly cult. While it’s a bit of a sleeper hit compared to the other films listed, The Ritual strikes all the classic folk-horror marks.
10. Midsommar (2019)
If any film can claim the title heir apparent to The Wicker Man, it’s Ari Aster’s visually stunning Midsommar. As seen in previous hit Hereditary, Aster uses realistic, fully developed characters and their tenuous relationships to bring terror home. Midsommar stars Florence Pugh as a young woman recovering from the death of her entire family in a murder-suicide. She accompanies her increasingly distant boyfriend and his friends on a cultural anthropology study trip to an ancient Swedish commune. Filled with hallucinatory, subliminal imagery, Midsommar takes the folk-horror trope of human sacrifice and inverts it in a most surprising way.