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23 Folk Horror Films: From Murnau to Ari Aster

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The folk horror genre is a subgenre of horror with deep roots in film history. Characterized by rural settings, local mythology, and a sense of ancestral darkness, folk horror has created some of the most evocative cinematic works of all time. This article will explore the evolution of folk horror movies, the directors who have helped to define it, and its lasting influences.

The Roots of Folk Horror

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Folk horror can trace its origins to German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Nosferatu (1922) is an early example of the eerie atmosphere and rural setting that would later be reflected in many folk horror movies. Murnau’s work also introduced the concept of the “monster” that, unlike urban ones, had deeper roots in tradition and nature.

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The Golden Age of Folk Horror

The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of folk horror. Directors such as Robin Hardy and his The Wicker Man (1973) brought the genre to the height of its popularity. The film explores the conflict between Christianity and ancient pagan beliefs on a remote Scottish island, culminating in an iconic conclusion. This period also saw the classic Witchfinder General (1968) by Michael Reeves, based on the true story of Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century witch hunter.

The Influence of British Folk Horror

Great Britain has been a hotbed of production for folk horror. The country has provided fertile ground for stories based on the countryside and its legends. Films such as Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013) and Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) are contemporary examples of the continued appeal of British folk horror. These films blend elements of magical realism, occultism, and rural terror to create a unique experience.

Folk horror has also influenced other forms of media, including television. The British series Children of the Stones (1977) is a notable example of how the genre has left its mark on the small screen. The plot follows a family who moves to an apparently quiet English village, but which is actually ruled by ancient and dark forces.

The Advancement of Modern Folk Horror

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Folk horror is still alive and well in modern cinema. Directors such as Ari Aster have taken the genre to new heights with films such as Midsommar (2019), which takes place during a Swedish pagan festival. The film perfectly captures the eerie atmosphere and isolation typical of folk horror, while exploring the psychology of the characters in a folkloristic context.

The Future of Folk Horror

Folk horror is destined to continue to evolve. Directors continue to find new ways to reinterpret old legends and rural fears in a contemporary setting. The genre remains a powerful force in cinematic horror and continues to scare and fascinate audiences around the world.

Folk horror represents an important part of the history of horror cinema. From its humble beginnings in German Expressionist cinema to the innovative experiments of modern directors, the genre has consistently offered audiences a unique vision of horror, rooted in tradition and human nature. With its mix of local mythology, rural landscapes, and ancestral terror, folk horror remains an enduring cinematic genre.

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The Folk Horror Movies not to Be Missed

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a 1920 German silent film directed by Robert Wiene. It is often regarded as an icon of German Expressionist cinema, a film movement characterized by a highly stylized and emotionally charged approach to visual storytelling. However, it can also be associated with the “folk horror” genre through some of its thematic and atmospheric elements.

The story unfolds in a small German town and revolves around Dr. Caligari, an apparently respectable but mysterious doctor. Dr. Caligari travels with a sleepwalking exhibition, featuring a sleepwalker named Cesare. However, beneath this veneer of normalcy lies a terrifying secret: Dr. Caligari uses the sleepwalker to commit a series of brutal murders while asleep, functioning as a malevolent puppeteer controlling his victim.

What makes “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” unique is its extraordinary visual style. The film’s sets are characterized by sharp angles, exaggerated curved lines, and distorted environments that create a dreamlike and haunting atmosphere. This visual design mirrors the mental chaos of the characters and their altered perception of reality, elements commonly found in “folk horror” movies.

Additionally, the film is renowned for its ambiguous narrative. The story is presented through the perspective of an unreliable narrator, constantly challenging the audience’s understanding of what is real and what is imaginary, a characteristic often seen in “folk horror” movies. Ultimately, the film delivers a twist ending that completely reshapes the perception of the events depicted.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a highly influential film in the history of cinema, known for its visual innovation, intricate narrative, and lasting impact on cinematic art, making it a precursor to the “folk horror” genre.

Nosferatu (1922)

“Nosferatu” is a 1922 German silent film directed by F.W. Murnau, known by the same title in both Italian and English. This film can be associated with the “folk horror” genre through some of its thematic and atmospheric elements.

The film’s plot follows the story of Thomas Hutter, a young real estate agent who is sent to Transylvania by his employer to close a deal with the mysterious Count Orlok, an unofficial version of Dracula. As Hutter journeys to Orlok’s castle, he disturbingly discovers that the count is, in fact, a vampire who feeds on the blood of humans. The film unfolds as a horror thriller as Hutter tries to escape the castle and the terror of the vampire.

“Nosferatu” is known for its eerie and unsettling atmosphere, achieved through evocative set designs and stunning black-and-white cinematography. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is particularly iconic, with his spectral appearance and sinister movements.

This film is considered one of the early masterpieces of the horror genre and has had a lasting influence on the genre. Its ominous atmosphere and the characterization of the vampire have influenced numerous subsequent films dedicated to the undead, contributing to the development of the “folk horror” genre over the years.

Faust (1926)

“Faust” (1926) is a German silent film directed by F.W. Murnau, known by the same title in both Italian and English. This film can be associated with the “folk horror” genre through some of its thematic and atmospheric elements.

The plot follows the story of Heinrich Faust, an elderly man who is dissatisfied with his life and eager for knowledge and power. Faust makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, to gain eternal youth and supernatural power in exchange for his soul. The plot represents an epic struggle between good and evil as Faust experiences wealth, love, and magic, but ultimately must face the consequences of his pact with the devil.

“Faust” is known for its extraordinary cinematography, innovative special effects, and visually powerful storytelling, elements often found in “folk horror” movies. Emil Jannings’ portrayal of the devil is particularly memorable.

This film is considered one of the masterpieces of silent cinema and contributed to solidifying F.W. Murnau’s reputation as a highly talented director in the “folk horror” genre.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928) is a silent film directed by Jean Epstein. This film can be associated with the “folk horror” genre through some of its thematic and atmospheric elements.

The plot follows an unnamed narrator who visits the ancient House of Usher, a family plagued by a series of tragedies and a mysterious curse. The residence itself seems to be a living and decaying organism, with crumbling walls and an overwhelming sense of dread. The film captures the descent into madness and horror as the narrator seeks to uncover the dark secrets of the Ushers and their connection to the house.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is known for its stunning cinematography and oppressive atmosphere, elements often found in “folk horror” movies. Director Jean Epstein employs evocative visual techniques to capture the psychological disintegration of the characters and the growing sense of anguish.

The film is considered a classic of expressionist cinema and an important contribution to the cinematic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work in the “folk horror” genre.

Vampyr (1932)

“Vampyr” is a 1932 film directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, known by the same title in both Italian and English. This film can be associated with the “folk horror” genre through some of its thematic and atmospheric elements.

The plot follows the story of Allan Gray, a traveler who finds himself in a mysterious and isolated village. Gray begins to suspect that the village is afflicted by a series of supernatural events, including vampires that roam at night. The film is known for its dreamlike and surreal atmosphere, elements commonly found in “folk horror” movies, and its use of innovative special effects for its time.

“Vampyr” stands out for its non-linear narrative and the fact that much of the story is conveyed through the use of evocative and symbolic imagery rather than through explicit dialogue, a characteristic often seen in “folk horror” movies. This narrative style contributes to creating an atmosphere of mystery and terror.

The film is considered a classic of art and experimental cinema, with a strong influence in the horror genre and an appreciation for its ability to create a unique and unsettling cinematic experience within the context of “folk horror.”

Lust of the Vampire (1957)

“Lust of the Vampire” is a 1957 British horror film that can be associated with the folk horror subgenre. While the term “folk horror” is more commonly associated with cinema and narrative works from the 1960s and 1970s, some of the characteristics of this genre emerge in “I Vampiri.”

The film features key elements of folk horror, including an isolated locale, rural folk beliefs, and a supernatural presence blending with the peasant world. The story follows a young woman who inherits a rural estate in France and becomes embroiled in a series of mysterious and supernatural events. The surrounding village is steeped in superstitions and fears related to vampire-like creatures.

While “I Vampiri” may not be considered one of the pioneers of the folk horror genre, it shares some of the themes and atmospheres typical of this cinematic style that would later be more fully developed in films like “The Wicker Man” (1973) and “Witchfinder General” (1968). The film incorporates traditional and rural elements into its narrative context, creating a sense of isolation and tension based on ancient folk beliefs.

Therefore, while “I Vampiri” may not be a classic example of the folk horror genre, it still exhibits elements that can be linked to this cinematic subgenre.

Black Sunday (1960)

“Black Sunday” is an Italian horror film from 1960 directed by Mario Bava. The film is often considered a precursor to the folk horror genre as it incorporates elements of local folklore and superstitions into a plot centered around a family curse and supernatural forces.

The story is set in 17th-century Moldavia and follows the tale of the vampire witch Asa Vajda and her lover Javuto, who are sentenced to death and subjected to a brutal execution for their dark practices. However, before dying, Asa casts a curse on the family that persecuted her and vows revenge. Two centuries later, the descendants of the Vajda family accidentally awaken the witch, unleashing a series of supernatural events.

The film is known for its gothic atmosphere, evocative set designs, and visually intense terror sequences. “La maschera del demonio” helped establish Mario Bava’s reputation as one of the masters of Italian horror and significantly influenced the folk horror genre with its portrayal of ancient curses and dark creatures.

Black Sabbath (1963)

“Black Sabbath” is a 1963 Italian horror film directed by Mario Bava. This film represents an example of Italian horror cinema of its time and consists of three distinct segments, each offering a different tale of terror.

The first segment, titled “The Telephone,” follows a woman terrorized by threats from a mysterious caller. The second segment, “I Wurdulak,” is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy and revolves around a group of vampire hunters who must confront the return of a dangerous Wurdulak. The third segment, “The Drop of Water,” follows a woman who steals a ring from a corpse and experiences a series of unsettling supernatural events.

While “I tre volti della paura” is not traditionally classified as a folk horror movie, it contains elements that draw upon local folklore and superstitions. The segment “I Wurdulak,” for example, explores the theme of vampires within the context of Eastern European folk traditions. These folkloric elements contribute to creating a sense of terror tied to popular beliefs and legends.

Therefore, while the film may not be a typical example of folk horror, it does feature elements of folklore that add depth to its narrative of terror.

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The Third Eye (1966)

“The Third Eye” is a 1966 Indian film directed by Chetan Anand. This film is often considered an example of folk horror in the Indian context as it incorporates elements of local mythology and superstition into a plot that explores the paranormal and the occult.

The story follows a documentary filmmaker who decides to make a film about beliefs and rituals related to reincarnation. During filming, the protagonist and his crew encounter supernatural events and mysterious presences that challenge their rationality and reveal the presence of dark forces and ancient beliefs.

“The Third Eye” is known for its eerie atmosphere and its use of rural landscapes and remote locations in India as a backdrop for its narrative. This film is significant for Indian cinema as it helped introduce elements of folk horror into the context of subcontinental cinema.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

“Rosemary’s Baby” is a 1968 horror film directed by Roman Polanski. The film is known for its atmosphere of suspense and psychological horror rather than being a folk horror movie. The plot follows young Rosemary Woodhouse, portrayed by Mia Farrow, and her husband Guy, who move into a historic building in New York. Rosemary becomes pregnant but begins to suspect that there are dark and sinister forces surrounding her pregnancy involving their neighbors.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is known for its slow pace, increasing suspense, and Mia Farrow’s performance as a woman facing growing suspicions and paranoia. The film has influenced the psychological horror genre but is not generally considered an example of folk horror, which tends to focus more on folklore, rural traditions, and local superstitions.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is a 1970 Italian giallo film directed by Dario Argento, considered one of the director’s masterpieces. The film is distinguished by its distinctive visual style and iconic score by Ennio Morricone.

The plot follows Sam Dalmas, an American visiting Rome, who becomes inadvertently entangled in a series of mysterious murders. While observing modern art in a gallery, he witnesses a murder attempt and gets trapped between the glass doors. This event unexpectedly embroils him in the investigations into the series of murders as he seeks to uncover the identity of the killer. Throughout the film, Sam collaborates with a journalist and embarks on a dangerous investigation that brings him closer to the truth.

The film is known for its creative use of cinematography, with key scenes shot using unique visual effects that emphasize horror and tension. Morricone’s score adds an element of suspense and mystery to the narrative. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” has influenced the giallo genre and contributed to defining Argento’s distinctive style as a director of thrillers and horror.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

“Non si sevizia un paperino,” also known as “Don’t Torture a Duckling” in its English title, is a 1972 Italian film directed by Lucio Fulci. The Italian title of the film may seem misleading, but the film is known for being a psychological and horror thriller rather than one involving ducks or ducklings. The film is centered around a series of murders in a small rural town in southern Italy and can be associated with the Italian giallo genre, known for its intricate mysteries and dark atmospheres.

The plot follows a journalist and a private investigator who are trying to solve a series of child murders in an isolated community. As the investigation unfolds, dark secrets, local superstitions, and social tensions come to light. The film explores themes such as violence, superstition, and the community’s reaction to the horrific crimes that occur.

“Don’t Torture a Duckling” is known for its dark and controversial tone and how it addresses complex issues. It is an example of Italian cinema of the time that challenged conventions and addressed social issues through the horror genre.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

“Don’t Look Now” is a 1973 film directed by Nicolas Roeg. This film is a significant example of psychological and horror cinema rather than a folk horror movie. The plot follows an American couple, portrayed by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, who move to Venice following the tragic death of their daughter. While in the city, they begin to experience paranormal events and disturbing visions, creating a growing sense of terror.

“Don’t Look Now” is known for its distinctive visual style and creative use of editing to convey a non-linear narrative. The film has been praised for its unsettling atmosphere and its portrayal of ambiguity between reality and imagination.

While the film explores themes of grief, loss, and distress, it is not generally classified as folk horror, which typically involves themes related to folklore, rural traditions, and local superstitions.

The Omen (1976)

“The Omen”, directed by Richard Donner, is a 1976 horror film. The movie is known for its plot involving supernatural elements but does not fall into the folk horror category. The story follows Robert Thorn, an American ambassador played by Gregory Peck, and his wife Katherine, portrayed by Lee Remick, who adopt a child after their biological son dies during childbirth. The adopted child, Damien, is raised as their legitimate heir. However, as Damien grows, disturbing signs emerge, suggesting that the child may be connected to sinister and deadly events occurring around him.

“The Omen” is renowned for its ominous atmosphere and the portrayal of evil incarnate through the young Damien. The film addresses themes of superstition, religion, and the struggle between good and evil. Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack significantly contributes to maintaining tension throughout the film.

The success of “The Omen” led to the creation of a series of sequels and remakes, but the original film remains a landmark in horror and supernatural cinema.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

“Cannibal Holocaust” is a controversial Italian film from 1980 directed by Ruggero Deodato. This film is known as one of the early examples of the cannibal horror genre. The plot follows a university professor who ventures into the Amazon rainforest to search for a missing documentary film crew that had been attempting to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. During his search, he discovers brutal and disturbing footage that reveals the horrors committed by the vanished crew.

The film is infamous for its extremely graphic and controversial depiction of violence, torture, and cannibalism, which led to heavy censorship and even the director’s arrest. Controversy surrounding the film centered on its authenticity, with some initially believing that the murder scenes were real. However, the director had to prove that the actors were alive.

“Cannibal Holocaust” is an extremely controversial and debated film that has sparked discussions about violence in cinema and the responsibility of directors in using such imagery. It is known for its impact and for opening up debates about film censorship and the ethics of representing violence in popular culture.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

“In the Mouth of Madness” is a 1994 horror film directed by John Carpenter. This film is known as one of the director’s significant works in the horror and psychological genre.

The plot follows an insurance investigator, played by Sam Neill, who is tasked with investigating the disappearance of a famous horror novelist, Sutter Cane. Cane is known for his disturbing novels, and his latest work seems to have a strange and destabilizing effect on readers. During his investigation, the investigator discovers that Cane’s stories have a connection to a seemingly nonexistent town, Hobb’s End, which exists only in Cane’s novels. The investigator becomes trapped in a spiral of madness as he tries to comprehend the distorted reality surrounding him.

“In the Mouth of Madness” is known for its unsettling atmosphere and Lovecraftian influences in its narrative. The film explores themes of distorted reality, perception, and the thin line between sanity and madness. It is considered a cult classic in the psychological horror genre and has gained a following among horror film enthusiasts.

The Descent (2005)

“The Descent” is a 2005 British horror film directed by Neil Marshall.

The plot follows a group of friends who venture into a remote and unexplored cave system in the Appalachian Mountains. As they explore the depths of the cave, they realize they are not alone and must confront horrific underground creatures. The film skillfully combines the element of spelunking adventure with supernatural horror, creating constant tension as the characters struggle to survive and find a way out.

“The Descent” is known for its claustrophobic atmosphere and intense suspense. The film was well-received by critics and gained a reputation as one of the scariest horror films of the 2000s. It has become a genre classic and spawned a sequel.

The Witch (2015)

“The Witch” is a 2015 horror film directed by Robert Eggers. This film fits perfectly within the folk horror genre.

The plot is set in 17th century New England and follows a family of Puritan settlers who have been exiled from the community due to extreme religious differences. The family settles on the edge of a dark and isolated forest, but soon, sinister events begin to occur. The mother of the family, portrayed by Kate Dickie, begins to suspect that an evil presence lurks in the forest, bringing tension and paranoia to the family.

“The Witch” is known for its evocative visual style and its historical accuracy in depicting the Puritan era. The film explores themes of superstition, religion, and the fear of the unknown, approaching the folk horror genre with its portrayal of ancient beliefs and fears.

Hereditary (2018)

“Hereditary” is a 2018 horror film directed by Ari Aster. This film represents an example of contemporary folk horror.

The plot follows the Graham family, who begins to experience terrifying events following the death of their grandmother. The mother of the family, portrayed by Toni Collette, tries to uncover the dark secrets of her family as strange and frightening events unfold around them. The film explores the theme of the inheritance of trauma and mental disorders, pushing the family to the brink in a spiral of terror and paranoia.

“Hereditary” is known for its distressing atmosphere and its approach to psychological horror. It has received critical acclaim for its intricate narrative, exceptional performances by the cast, and its ability to create a lasting sense of unease.

The Wind (2018)

“The Wind” is a 2018 horror movie directed by Emma Tammi. This film falls within the folk horror genre.

The plot is set in 19th-century Western America and follows a young woman named Lizzy Macklin, portrayed by Caitlin Gerard, who lives on a remote farm with her husband. Lizzy begins to experience a series of unsettling events and becomes convinced that a malevolent presence lurks in the vast open spaces around her. The film explores themes of isolation, loneliness, and the fear of the unknown in a wild and inhospitable environment.

“The Wind” is known for its desolate atmosphere and its depiction of isolation in the American West. The film skillfully blends elements of psychological terror with the folklore of the North American plains.

Midsommar (2019)

“Midsommar” is a 2019 film directed by Ari Aster. This film falls under the genre of “folk horror” and provides a unique and unsettling take on the genre.

The plot follows a young woman named Dani, portrayed by Florence Pugh, who, after a family tragedy, joins a group of friends on a trip to Sweden to participate in a summer festival that occurs once every ninety years. What initially seems like a fascinating cultural experience quickly turns into a spiral of horror and madness as the group realizes that the traditions of the Swedish village are much darker and sinister than they had imagined.

Director Ari Aster creates an oppressive atmosphere through cinematography, music, and the use of symbolism. The film explores themes such as ritualism, connection with nature, and collective madness, which are common elements in folk horror movies. The cinematography is extraordinarily bright and colorful, creating a stark contrast with the disturbing events unfolding in the village.

“Midsommar” is an intense visual and psychological experience that delves into the dark side of cultural traditions and offers a unique perspective on the folk horror genre.

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Santa Maud – Saint Maud (2019)

“Saint Maud” is a 2019 film written and directed by Rose Glass. This film can be described as a psychological thriller with elements of horror and drama.

The story follows Maud, portrayed by Morfydd Clark, a young British nurse who, after a traumatic incident at work, converts to Catholicism and moves to a small town to care for Amanda, a wealthy and sick woman played by Jennifer Ehle. Maud develops a deep obsession with her patient and begins to believe that she has been chosen by God to save Amanda’s soul.

The film explores themes of faith, obsession, and delusion through Maud’s perspective, making it a psychological thriller of sorts. Director Rose Glass creates a constant tension, underscored by an eerie soundtrack. The performances of the actors, particularly Morfydd Clark in the role of Maud, are exceptional and contribute to creating a haunting atmosphere.

“Saint Maud” is an intense film that delves into the disturbed psychology of its main character as she grapples with her religious obsessions. It’s a cinematic work that leaves room for various interpretations and offers a unique perspective on faith and the human mind.

The Lighthouse (2019)

“The Lighthouse” (2019) is a film directed by Robert Eggers, known by the same title in both Italian and English. This film can be described as a psychological thriller and horror set in a remote Atlantic lighthouse in the 19th century.

The plot revolves around two main characters, portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who are assigned to serve as lighthouse keepers for a period of four weeks. As their isolation deepens, tensions, paranoia, and a series of supernatural events emerge. The film explores the growing madness of the two men, forcing them to confront their inner demons and the hostile environment of the lighthouse, in a kind of psychological “folk horror.”

The black and white cinematography contributes to creating a claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere, while the performances of Dafoe and Pattinson are exceptional and filled with tension. The film uses bold visual and narrative language, including symbolic and mythological elements.

“The Lighthouse” is a unique cinematic experience, characterized by a gripping narrative and a sense of growing oppression. It’s a film that explores loneliness, madness, and the struggle for power, offering an intense and dark portrayal of two men trapped in a remote and hostile environment.

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