Eloise Hendy delves into the genre that turns the pastoral idyll into a place of terror, and asks what’s behind this obsession with the natural world, magic cults, standing stones and feminine powers
By Eloise Hendy
In Enys Men – the much-anticipated new film written and directed by Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin, whose last feature, Bait (2019), earned him a Bafta for Outstanding Debut – a woman in walking boots, jeans, and a translucent red anorak trudges across gorsy moorland towards a cliff face. She clambers down, perches on a rocky outcrop, and stares intently at a few white flowers as they sway in the wind, high above clamorous waves below.
Every day she studies these flowers. Then, every day she drops a rock into an abandoned tin mine’s inky depths, and stands listening for a distant thud. She returns to an isolated, ivy-covered cottage. A standing stone sticks out of the landscape like an ancient dagger-head. The woman pulls the cord of a power generator, makes a pot of tea, listens to the scratchy, indistinct noises of a radio communication device, and, in a logbook, records the date – April 1973 – and the words ‘”no change”. At bedtime, by candlelight, she reads an environmental manifesto titled Blueprint for Survival. Snatched glimpses of the cover reveal a quote in red: “Nightmarishly convincing… After reading it nothing quite seems the same any more.”
This phrase goes to the heart of this strange, spectral work of cinema. Even calling it a film feels wrong somehow; it feels more like a fever dream, or hallucination. For, almost as soon as the unnamed wildlife volunteer’s routine comes into focus for the viewer, it starts to fracture. Lichen blooms on her flowers and on a scar that stretches across her abdomen. Grubby-faced men holding pickaxes stare at her from the mineshaft; sailors lost at sea grin and drip outside her front door; a girl in white bell bottoms stands on the outhouse roof. Steadily, the whole far-flung landscape begins to teem with apparitions. They are both convincing and nightmarish; nothing quite seems the same any more. Is the volunteer losing her mind? Or merging with an ancient Cornish terrain – one riddled with myth and old scars, like her lichen-sprouting stomach?
In a statement accompanying Enys Men (which is pronounced Ennis Main, and means “stone island” in Cornish), Jenkin suggests his starting point for the film was a single question: “What if the landscape was not only alive, but sentient?” Long fascinated by Cornish standing stones and their accompanying legends – one of which imagines the rocks as the petrified remains of a group of young girls, punished for dancing – Jenkin found himself imagining what these stones and remote moorlands might get up to under cover of darkness. “Almost inevitably, considering the setting,” he writes, “the idea was inclined towards folk horror.”
Jenkin is far from the only contemporary filmmaker inclined in this direction. Indeed, for at least a decade we have been in the midst of a magnificent folk horror revival. But why has this strange subgenre of standing stones and spectral presences captured the imagination of filmmakers and audiences in the UK and beyond? What does the folk horror boom say about our contemporary fears?
The term itself only went mainstream in 2010, when Mark Gatiss used it in the BBC documentary series The History of Horror to describe three British films now known as the Unholy Trinity: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). It is certainly no coincidence then that Enys Men is set in 1973, as, making the film, it was precisely these cinematic roots Jenkin wanted to rummage in. “For me,” Jenkin writes, “folk horror has very English connotations. The stripping away of a pastoral layer of Merrie England to reveal an earlier Celtic and pagan past full of perceived brutality, deviance and threat.” Yet, since Gatiss first invoked the genre, cinemagoers on both sides of the Atlantic have been offered up Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), James Crow’s Curse of The Witching Tree (2015), Robert Egger’s The VVitch (subtitled “A New England Folktale”), Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Scott Cooper’s Antlers (2021) and, most recently, Alex Garland’s Men (2022). All present nightmarish visions of a deviant, occult and cult-addled countryside. And that is far from an exhaustive list. Continue reading