The Irish Film Institute held a season of folk horror films. What the hell, I thought, buying tickets for all of them. For those that do not know of such things, Folk Horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss in a 2010 BBC documentary about horror cinema. The three films Gatiss proposed as the epitome folk horror are all from the late 1960s or early 1970s. They were included in this season, as were many several others.
I have not seen Gatiss's documentary so I do not know how exactly he defined his genre. I think of it as being a combination of the uncanny with folk beliefs and practices, though the canonical films do not all readily fit such a mould: indeed, it would largely leave us with folk horror being a one-film genre, with that film being The Wicker Man. So instead I will now bomb through the films shown in the season and we can see if any kind of commonality can be seen.
First up there was Witchfinder General (1968), one of Gatiss's trinity. Directed by Michael Reeves, it tells the story of Matthew Hopkins, a real historical figure who hunted and executed large numbers of suspected witches in eastern England during the chaotic Civil War period. The film has a curious relationship with the reality of the Hopkins story. On the one hand outdoor scenes are filmed in places where Mr Hopkins stalked and killed his prey, but the film presents a more lurid version of his activities, throwing in a baroque witch burning at one point (with hanging being the more usual method of executing witches, or so I understand). The film's narrative drive comes from the quest for revenge of a soldier whose betrothed has been abused and debauched by Hopkins & his thuggish assistant, with the grim ending turning the soldier from square-jawed hero into violent maniac.
For all that this is one of the defining films of the folk horror genre I find Witchfinder General's inclusion therein somewhat problematic. There is very little sense in the film of anyone actually believing in witchcraft (either people considering themselves witches or sincerely believing that others are practitioners of the black arts). Accusations of witchcraft appear as a cynical ploy for people who want to punish their enemies or satiate violent urges. Hopkins himself is hard to think of as anything other than a conman using his witch hunts as a way of enriching himself (though his being played by Vincent Price has a lot to do with this). Perhaps what makes this folk horror is its evocation of the latent sadism and malevolence of the common folk, which we see in those scenes where jeering crowds watch the abuse and execution of those accused of witchcraft.
Famously Michael Reeves did not want Vincent Price in the Hopkins role, wishing that he could have Donald Pleasance instead, but the studio insisted. Price and Reeves did not get on, and at one point Price exclaimed to the much younger Reeves, "I've made 80 films! What have you ever done?", to which Reeves replied, "I've made three good ones". Or so it is said.
That same evening I saw The Wicker Man (1973), again introduced by Kim Newman. I have started thinking that this might actually be my favourite film in the world and that I will never turn down a chance to see it. Part of its fun is that it circulates in a multiplicity of versions, so whenever it is shown you never quite know what you are going to get. Newman mentioned that they did not actually know what version they were showing tonight, so he must have been as surprised by me to see an odd two night version that nevertheless leaves out the snails and 'Gently Johnny', felt by many to be the film's best song. Newman also confessed to a sneaking regard for the short version, which was originally shown with no fanfare as a support film for Don't Look Now, with much of its early word-of-mouth power coming from the fact that people were seeing it completely without preconceptions. I know what he means, as I still shudder at the memory of short horror film The Cottage,which I saw unexpectedly before Airplane 2 or similar back in 1982.
The Wicker Man is the folk horror film because the sense of unease and then the horrific climax all derive from the crazy folk customs of the islanders. An odd feature of the film noted by Newman is that it has become very popular with neo-pagans, which he likened to Spotlight becoming a favourite of Catholic priests. The analogy does not quite work, as the priests are a shadowy off screen presence in Spotlight while The Wicker Man is very much about the islanders and their funny ways, but it does bring home how odd it is to have people watching a film about a death cult and saying, "we love those guys".
One other thing occurred to me after an online discussion on the film. In The Wicker Man the pagan islanders are in opposition to the uptight Christian cop Sergeant Howie (played as you know by Edward Woodward). To modern viewers (and I suspect to many in 1973) the two poles of unbending Christianity and pagan fertility cult are both equally strange. It might be that if someone were to try and remake the film now (please don't) or to make something new but similar they would need to replace Howie either with a Dawkins-style scientific rationalist or someone with a more "whatever" approach to religion.
Part two of my write-up of the Haunted Landscapes season is here.
If you want to delve further into this Folk Horror business, see my account of interesting conference A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.
Mark Gatiss (Celluloid Wicker Man)
Vincent Price (Guardian)
The Wicker Man poster (Wikipedia)