Folk horror is rarely brought up in conversation with other sub-genres of horror. You never really hear it mentioned in the same breath as vampire movies or slashers—if you even hear it mentioned at all. Which is a shame, because it’s such a unique genre. And with the recent release of The Witch, there’s no better time to revisit it.
Obviously, there’s a strong element of history attributed with folk horror, specifically centering around the witch trials that were made infamous in—but not exclusive to—Salem. That historical aspect is the reason some of the entries on this list are not traditional folk horror, but count because history is such an important establishing element of the sub-genre. Atmosphere also plays a crucial role as well. Given the isolated locations, folk horror can often be the best at establishing an overbearing sense of dread.
Most popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s, folk horror hasn’t had much of a resurgence since its heyday, other than the occasional surprise every few years. It’s a wider, more experimental genre than it’s given credit for, considering that its horror can be both realistic in the sense of cultish paranoia it creates, as well as often overtly supernatural. In fact, most of the films on this list excelled at both.
The second-most recent entry on this list, Wake Wood is a great, classical feeling folk horror. It’s an Irish film about a husband and wife who tragically lose their daughter, only to move to the one rural village that could possibly bring her back. Of course, everything comes at a cost. It’s a suspenseful slow burn in the best way, and is also aided by the inventiveness of its storyline.
A low budget AIP production from the late ‘60s, Witchfinder General is nonetheless one of the cornerstones of folk horror. It stars Vincent Price as a malicious witch hunter and was actually released stateside as The Conqueror Worm in order to try and tie it in with the successful Price-starring Poe adaptations of Roger Corman. It’s also notable for its director Michael Reeves, who did an excellent job on the movie, but died shortly after its release.
The Devil Rides Out
No folk horror list would be complete without a Hammer Production. And this one directed by Hammer heavy Terence Fisher remains one of the most influential. Although set in 1929, this one does have a much more contemporary setting than most folk horror films of the era. This is one Hammer feature that sees Lee in a rare heroic role, which is a pleasant surprise after playing Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy all within such a short span of time.
The Lair of the White Worm
Ken Russell’s bizarre folk horror film remains an absolute favorite. It’s a unique take on the traditional vampire movie, a psychosexual tale of an attempt to raise a pagan serpent god buried beneath a small village in the English countryside. It also boasts a great cast including Peter Capaldi and Hugh Grant, not to mention an impeccable sense of tone and comedic timing.
Children of the Corn
Stephen King’s unique take on folk horror sees a religious cult of murderous children living in modern day Nebraska. While the biting satire of the short story is lost on the film, the basic premise remains intact. The best parts revolve around the childrens’ worship of a supernatural entity that they call He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Its presence is built up entirely of shots of corn and sermons from boy preacher Isaac.
The Witch might have just come out this past weekend, but it’s a return to classical folk horror in a big way. It won over critics at early festival screenings, and while critics loved it, the overall reaction seems to be surprisingly mixed. Still, I would definitely recommend it to people looking to satisfy their theatrical horror fix. The historical accuracy alone is reason enough to see it.
The Wicker Man
No, I’m not talking about the Nicolas Cage remake. This is the original, and it’s the king. For a lot of reasons, The Wicker Man just hits every nail on the head of what a folk horror movie should be. Atmosphere, complex characterization, cult paranoia, it’s all here. Like Halloween is to slashers, this is the template all folk horror should follow to see what works. Christopher Lee, who had more credits than any living actor until his recent passing, always referred back to this as the best film he ever made.