“Russian screen writer Anatole de Grunwald imbues this poignant adaptation of Wynward Browne’s West End stage hit with Chekhov’s spirit and relocates the Russian’s genius for deftly-drawn characters to a rambling Norfolk parsonage on Christmas Eve. […] while The Holly and The Ivy now radiates a nostalgic glow, it is actually a revealing record of a country on the cusp of the dramatic social, economic and cultural change that has, sadly, made faith, fidelity and family feel like relics of a distant past.”
The Holly and the Ivy is a 1952 British drama film directed by George More O’Ferrall and starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, and Margaret Leighton with Denholm Elliott, John Gregson and Hugh Williams also in the cast. It was adapted from the 1950 play of the same name by Wynyard Browne. Produced by Anatole de Grunwald and co-scripted by Browne and de Grunwald it was distributed by British Lion Films. It is about an Irish clergyman whose neglect of his grown offspring, in his zeal to tend to his parishioners, comes to the surface at a Christmas family gathering.
The film was shot at Shepperton Studios outside London with sets designed by the art director Vincent Korda. Actresses Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delany reprised their roles from the stage. It was released in the United States in 1954 by the independent Pacemaker Pictures. [ Wikipedia ]
As ‘Midsommar’ unleashes its nasty festivities on moviegoers, we remember these demented little films that paved the way.
By Kieran Fisher
The majority of horror subgenres boast basic characteristics that make them easy to summarize. For example, slasher films focus on killers who stalk and slash their victims. Haunting movies, meanwhile, center around people being tormented by poltergeists and other supernatural menaces. You get the idea. Horror might be fascinated with strange forces, but its various subgenres’ rules and conventions are simple for the most part.
Folk horror, on the other hand, is a difficult subgenre to canonize. As genre scholar and author Adam Scovell notes, the term fluctuates so often that its definition is not always easy to pin down outside of a few popular examples of movies, TV shows, etc. So, what exactly is folk horror?
The definition is often simplified as the symbiotic relationship between horror and folklore. Whether that’s stories mined from real-world folk tales or fictional ideas with a folkloric aesthetic, this definition is logical. Unfortunately, it’s only one strand of a subgenre that encompasses so much more than that.
Not every folk horror story explores folklore. Some of them are rooted in the occult and witchcraft. Others adopt a more realistic form of storytelling and chronicle terror that doesn’t feature deranged cults and witches. But there are certain themes which unify a myriad of works and make them folk horror.
Landscape and environment is an essential theme of the genre. These tales are set in the countryside or rural regions, and often present the juxtaposition between lush, pastoral scenery and cruel, horrific terror. These settings give the films a strong visual aesthetic, but they’re also a key component of another theme that defines the genre: isolation.
Folk horror is concerned with characters and communities who are located out of the way of urban environments. As such, they have developed their own skewered belief systems, which results in violent and twisted acts being carried out on the unfortunate victims who find themselves caught up in the madness. These communities have ranged from pagans to hoodie gangs, and they can be any group of people who live beyond the fringes of normal society.
The origins of folk horror can be traced back to the silent film era. The Golem and The Phantom Carriage take their cues from folklore and superstition, but it was 1922’s Haxan — with its disturbing images of witchcraft and ancient belief systems intruding on rural settings — that laid the foundations for traditional folk horror to grow from decades later.
Three particular films — the “Unholy Trinity” — are often hailed as the progenitors of folk horror: Michael Reeves’ WitchfinderGeneral, Piers Haggard’s TheBlood On Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Let’s take a look at them.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Based on Ronald Bassett’s novel of the same name, which sensationalized the exploits of the 17th-century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General is a cruel and shocking film about a lawyer (Vincent Price) who’s been appointed by the British Parliament to investigate sorcery, Satanism, and witchcraft in the English countryside. However, he uses his position to advance his own interests at the expense of innocent people.
Despite its historical inaccuracies and exaggerations, the terror that takes place in Witchfinder General is presented so sincerely that its depiction of the past seems authentic. It’s a movie about politically motivated evil and how human paranoia can be manipulated by those in power with their own selfish agendas at heart.
The story’s rural setting and engagement with isolated belief systems provides the folk horror component. That said, Witchfinder General differentiates itself from its genre peers by being more overtly political and less interested in adhering to a typical horror movie framework.
The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)
This movie is a prime example of the intersection between folk horror and occult horror. While both subgenres are entirely different, they have been frequent bedfellows throughout the years and they complement each other well.
The Blood On Satan’s Claw takes place in Medieval Britain and sees the children of a local village convert to devil worship. The movie retains certain hallmarks of Satanic and possession flicks, but the isolated setting and the community members with deranged beliefs makes the movie unmistakably folk horror.
The Wicker Man (1973)
When it comes to movies about odd communities with their own wacky belief systems causing mayhem, Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie is by far the most popular of the bunch.
The story revolves around a Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) who visits a Scottish island in search of a missing girl. What he finds there, though, is a group of inhabitants with a penchant for singing, dancing, public nudity, and ritualistic sacrifice.
The Wicker Man is a movie about conflicting ideologies, which is a recurring theme in folk horror films. The practitioners of the latter need to commit atrocities in order to preserve their traditions and way of life, but like the denizens of other movies of this ilk, their isolation has led to collective madness.
Film director whose fragmented style bewitched and bewildered his audiences.
His early experience as a cinematographer brought a stunning visual quality to his work.He often exasperated the critics and gained a reputation as being hard on his actors. And he took a delight in jumbling scenes and time to both bewitch and bewilder his audiences.
Nicolas Roeg was born in St John’s Wood in north London on 15 August 1928. His father Jack, who was of Dutch ancestry, worked in the diamond trade but lost a lot of money when his investments failed in South Africa.
The first film he remembered seeing as a child was Babes in Toyland, starring Laurel and Hardy.
Roeg did his National Service after World War Two before getting a job making tea and operating the clapper board at Marylebone Studios, where he worked on a number of minor films.
By the dawn of the 1960s he had progressed to camera operator, notably on The Trials of Oscar Wilde and Fred Zinnemann’s film The Sundowners.
He was part of the second unit on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Lean later sacked him as director of photography on Doctor Zhivago after the two constantly quarrelled.
Many of the stunning scenes that won the latter film an Oscar were shot by Roeg but he was not credited.
His breakthrough came in 1964 when he worked as a cinematographer on Roger Corman’s film The Masque of the Red Death, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story, starring Vincent Price.
Corman was gaining a reputation for spotting and developing new talent and boosted the careers of other future directors including James Cameron and Martin Scorsese. Continue reading →
There’s a trend for donkeys in 2023 Oscars favourites, but cinema’s relationship with the animal traces much further back, finds Thomas H. Sheriff
By Thomas H. Sheriff
The day before the 2023 Academy Award nominees were announced, Horse and Hound magazine ran a story about neither horses nor hounds, but donkeys. “Donkeys are ‘capturing hearts worldwide’ as two films starring them are tipped for Oscar nominations,” ran the top line, nodding to the successes of Martin McDonaugh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO.
Indeed, both films celebrate the humble equine in all its greyish glory. Jenny the donkey steals scenes from Colin Farrell and Kerry Condon in Banshees, while the titular EO makes a compelling hero in Skolimowski’s Cannes Jury Prize winner. Triangle of Sadness, another Best Picture contender, also features a donkey (although the less said about that one’s fate, the better).
The films’ award nominations were heralded by the Donkey Sanctuary, a British charity dedicated to the welfare of donkeys across the world. The organisation was “delighted” that donkeys were “finally getting their moment in the spotlight”, a spokesperson said. It’s been a big year for donkeys, but the Donkey Sanctuary is patently too modest: in fact, for a species with just 27,000 members in the UK, donkeys have had more than their share of the spotlight for millennia.
The biggest donkey celebrity this millennium is, well, Donkey. I am, of course, referring to Eddie Murphy’s character in Shrek – one of the most culturally pervasive films of the 2000s. Perhaps yet more famous is Eeyore, the morose friend of Winnie the Pooh, a ubiquitous presence in children’s literature, film and television since 1926.
Donkeys aren’t just for kids, though. EO was heavily inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which also features a donkey as its protagonist, and was voted the 25th greatest film of all time in last year’s <i>Sight and Sound</i> poll. In Don Quixote, Sancho Panza’s most beloved friend – notably more so than his wife and daughter – is his loyal donkey Dapple, which he rides throughout the novel.
Going back even further, the list keeps growing. The only Ancient Roman novel to survive in Latin, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, tells of a man turned into a donkey. And then there’s the Bible, which is full of important donkeys. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, and Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, fulfilling the Old Testament’s prophecy that “thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9)
The donkey’s illustrious cultural history notwithstanding, it is not an obvious choice for a character. The natural animal heroes are dogs and cats; our pets are the animals we understand and humanise the most. But even lesser-spotted creatures like lions, monkeys, or elephants are, in a way, culturally familiar.
Most fictional animals are human caricatures. One aspect of humanity, be it avarice, wiliness, sloth, or anything else, is accentuated in the representation of a creature. It’s one of the oldest ways humans have related to the world and to each other. Lions are brave, monkeys are cheeky, elephants never forget. These are bold, easily defined animals. Aesop’s fables use such creatures to their advantage by removing the need for exposition. A hare, famously quick, is clearly faster than a tortoise.
The donkey, however, has no obvious dominating characteristics; it isn’t synonymous with any one human trait. Its role, then, is more subtle and multifaceted.
On the one hand, donkeys are clearly a target for comedy. Visually, it’s hard to deny that they’re a little pathetic; the diminutive, rather less graceful cousin of the horse. It’s what allows some of the best slapstick in Shrek, the character’s exaggerated front teeth accentuating Murphy’s goofiness. Even the word itself may be primed for humour: comedic tradition, as well as some scientific research, suggests that words with a k sound in them are inherently funny.
There’s also often a perceived lack of intelligence or a general uselessness, an image created by the Greeks and encouraged by Shakespeare, who popularised the use of “ass” as an insult. The trope extends to everyday life, too: anyone who’s ever watched football has surely heard someone cry “he’s a right donkey!” at a hapless centre back.
But donkeys are more than just laughable fools: they span the spectrum of human emotions. Eeyore isn’t funny, he’s sad; his melancholy is his defining trait. Bresson’s Balthazar is forgotten and mistreated, the ever-silent witness to human cruelty and folly. Christ’s journey into Jerusalem signifies his humility: the son of God arrives not on a magnificent stallion or borne aloft by angels, but atop a simple donkey. And when video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to convey the idea of a stubborn gorilla, he chose the name Donkey Kong.
Comedy, pathos, strength, wisdom, meekness… The donkey is not a one-trick pony. Unlike the sly fox or the silly monkey, the donkey contains too many multitudes to only signify one part of a human; the donkey in fiction is human. The donkey is more than human.
As long-suffering beasts of burden, donkeys are one of the few animals to truly experience labour like a human – distinct from livestock whose bodies produce goods, donkeys must toil to be useful. And their mournful eyes seem to suggest that they’re somehow aware of this injustice; both Bresson and Skolimowski use closeups of donkeys’ eyes to devastating effect. Roger Ebert wrote that “Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing.”
More than most humans, donkeys are stoical, diligently performing tasks, not with any extreme strength or speed (Mary arrives in Bethlehem only after all the inns are full) but with a quiet steadiness. When they do refuse work, their so-called stubbornness can seem like a commitment to values (the only time EO uses violence is to kick an exploitative fur trapper). Their gently comical appearance means that they never seem haughty or aloof (Donkey is often the moral core of the Shrek films, but is physically incapable of talking down to anyone). In Bresson’s film, Balthazar’s final custodian states it plainly: “He’s a saint.”
Bresson himself described Balthazar as “a living creature who’s completely humble, completely holy, and happens to be a donkey.” But Balthazar’s donkey-ness isn’t incidental, it’s essential. According to Skolimowski, donkeys “are gentle, caring, respectful, polite, and loyal. They live to the fullest in the present moment. They never show narcissism.” While humans are necessarily flawed characters, and most animals lend themselves to simple cartoons, donkeys can show us spiritual perfection.
Skolimowski also said that his donkey performers “do not skimp on the supposed intentions of their character; and never discuss their director’s vision. They are excellent actors.” Despite this, none of the donkeys featured in this year’s raft of nominee films will be returning to the stable yard with a glittering award. This is probably for the best: a donkey winning an Oscar would be like Saint Anthony winning at bingo.
But amongst the inevitable glamour and pomp of the awards season, let the final nod go to the humble donkey. Its simple, transcendent beauty makes an example for us all.
Folk horror is one of the oldest and most popular horror subgenres, but defining it and capturing its aesthetic can be difficult.
By Jordan Maison
Folk horror is among the most popular — and oldest — subgenres of horror and has seen a resurgence in recent years. Between heavy thematic elements and more simplistic settings, it’s a prime genre for indie filmmakers to get into.
Defining and incorporating all the elements that make folk horror what it is, however, can be a tad difficult. If you’re delving into folk horror for an upcoming project, we’re here to help you sort it all out, ensuring you bring an authentic experience for audiences.
Where did folk horror originate?
Depending on who you ask, folk horror as a film genre originates in Britain during the early 70s. Meanwhile, other countries lay claim to folk horror films as early as 1922 — with the Swedish film “Häxan” (1922) — having all the hallmarks. In most of Asia, one could argue nearly all its horror films fall into the genre. There’s no specific set of rules/themes. Instead, it’s about garnering a specific atmosphere. It dabbles into many different genre elements while still being uniquely itself.
The origin of the “folk horror” term is easier to pin down. It originated in 1970, used by the British film magazine Kine Weekly. When talking about the film “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” (1971), originally titled “The Devil’s Touch,” reviewer Rod Cooper coined the term “folk horror” for the first time. Years later, in 2004, the director of “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” Piers Haggard, would use the same phrase during a retrospective interview in Fangoria magazine:
“I grew up on a farm,” Haggard explains. “It’s natural for me to use the countryside as symbols or as imagery. As this was a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me. I was trying to make a folk-horror film, I suppose. Not a campy one.”
For many, the loose set of guidelines Haggard mentioned became the defining aspect of the subgenre. Folk horror, however, goes beyond that. At its simplest, folk horror can be any horror film that utilizes folklore elements to drive the story forward and bring the fear factor. No matter how you try to define it, what matters most when it comes to crafting a folk horror project, is capturing the intention of the subgenre.
Setting itself apart
Folk horror differentiates itself from the larger horror genre in several ways. While the ultimate goal is to leave you feeling unsettled and anxious, folk horror doesn’t lean into traditional jump scare tactics or gory imagery. Those aspects can still be used but aren’t the primary factor driving the scares. Instead, it pulls from local folklore, which changes depending on your location. We’re talking about standard urban legends or creepypastas that originated as modern online stories. Folk horror dives into the myths/legends specifically tied to a history and culture.
By and large, folk horror derives its chills in audiences by tapping into our most basic instincts about fear. Those childhood fears born of fables used to teach and protect, which eventually morphed into stories intrinsic to specific cultures. Folk horror takes elements of these stories and presents them in a fresh way that touches upon our innate fears.
WHILE THE ULTIMATE GOAL IS TO LEAVE YOU FEELING UNSETTLED AND ANXIOUS, FOLK HORROR DOESN’T LEAN INTO TRADITIONAL JUMP SCARE TACTICS OR GORY IMAGERY.
The story of Hansel and Gretel (and its many horror adaptations) is an excellent example of this at work. The story is a cautionary tale about strangers and trust, tapping into our fears of the unknown and being left alone. It’s perfectly suited for horror, despite its fairy tale origins.
What does folk horror include
We can debate the specifics of folk horror’s definition, but there are several tropes associated with the subgenre. If you’re looking to create your own folk horror video, these are some of the elements you’ll want to consider including:
Religion/The occult: If there’s one defining trope when it comes to folk horror, it’s this one. Every folk horror project includes an obvious connection to religion or the occult (witches, paganism, mystics, etc) as an integral role in its overall plot.
Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” (1984) is a prime example of this. The film’s religious cult of children drives the ritualistic killing of adults while worshipping a deity known only as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” Similarly, TV shows such as “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home” (1978) or the more recent “The Third Day” (2020) also focus on outsiders and pitting them against fervent cultists.
Dealing with the unknown: Supernatural forces/elements often factor into folk horror stories — e.g. “The Witch” (2015) and “Apostle” (2018). Those supernatural elements, however, are not the primary source of fear in the story. Instead, the terror comes from how characters adapt to it or use it to further their own power.
Perhaps a community forms around the needs/benefits of a supernatural being. In order to maintain the status quo, the community finds themselves doing horrendous things. Such is the case with Gareth Evans’ “Apostle” (2018), where the creature at the heart of the story itself isn’t scary in and of itself. Rather, it’s the acts villagers commit in its name that bring the terror.
In other parts of the world, folk horror has far more direct connections to the supernatural. Most Asian folk horror put the focus on some manner of vengeful spirit — or demon — terrorizing unsuspecting mortals in period settings. “Kuroneko” (1968) and “Onibaba” (1964) are early examples of this, coming out in Japan in the 60s.
IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD, FOLK HORROR HAS FAR MORE DIRECT CONNECTIONS TO THE SUPERNATURAL.
Being isolated: Isolation is a crucial factor in folk horror movies. Isolation can have a number of meanings depending on the context of the story. Typically, isolation in folk horror is more about people finding themselves as outsiders coming into an established community.
In Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” (2019), Dani and Christian find themselves alone amid a sinister cult. Robin Hardy’s classic film, “The Wicker Man” (1973), features a similar situation. The film is about a police officer investigating a disappearance, only later finding himself as the prime target for an ancient pagan sacrifice.
The Indonesian horror film “Satan’s Slave” (1976) takes a different approach to the idea of isolation. Instead of putting the characters in new locations, it presents them instead as people who cut themselves off from their own faiths and religious backgrounds. In doing so, they unwittingly bring terror to themselves in the form of ancient demons.
Rural settings: Setting ties into the isolation factor as many folk horror projects take place in some sort of rural or older setting. The key factor, however, isn’t just about where things take place but the feelings connected to those locations.
Whether it’s a secluded farm, a retreat nestled away deep in the woods, an island or even a rundown town, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is there’s a sense of connection to the setting being of “the old world.” Audiences should feel they’re dealing with something ancient and powerful. In this, even modern movies can fit the folk horror mold (e.g. “Candyman” (1992), “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), etc).
Unsettling endings: Folk horror won’t leave audiences feeling warm and fuzzy. There are rarely — if ever — any surviving characters to cheer on as they escape their predicament. These projects will leave viewers completely unsettled.
Sometimes this takes the form of the protagonists failing or dying, but folk horror likes to subvert expectations. Frequently, we see protagonists end up joining in the horrors they’ve endured. Rather than overcoming the circumstances, they become willing participants.
We saw this in “The Witch” (2015) as Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin joins the dark coven. Similarly, in 2011’s “Kill List” (2011), a hitman comes up against a brutal cult, ultimately ending with the cult crowing him as their new leader.
A lasting impact
While enthusiasts may dispute its overall history and origins, folk horror is proving to be an evergreen subgenre in horror. The concept of outsiders coming against old-world forces rarely gets old. Folk horror’s deep roots in folklore and culture provide a wealth of ideas that have yet to be tapped on the big — or small — screen.