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10 Great British Folk Horror Films That Are Worth Your Time

25 November 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by George Cromack

witchfinder ggeneral

In a 2010 BBC documentary, the programme focusing on British Horror of the 60’s and 70’s, presenter Mark Gatiss made reference to a small sub-genre one might term as Folk Horror.

This grouped together a trio of films (included in this list) which displayed common traits that could be argued set a certain group of film’s apart from there Gothic contemporaries. Many of these films convey notions of Pagan rituals, belief in witchcraft and have an almost elemental seasonal affinity with the English countryside and its ‘hidden past’.

Possibly occurring as part of the then contemporary hippy culture, writers having discovered the pre-Christian worship studies of George Fraser, a morbid fascination with the mysterious ‘ritualistic’ pitchfork murder in the Warwickshire countryside in the 1940’s or the influx of urbanites to the countryside.

The ‘genre’ has seen something or a revival and renewed debate continues over its parameters, here are ten (mostly) British films to introduce you to Folk Horror.

 

10. Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Directed by Gordon Hessler with a script by Christopher Wicking this film starring Vincent Price, followed swiftly in the wake of Witchfinder General.

Price takes the lead role as Lord Edward Whitman, an Elizabethan magistrate turned ‘witchfinder’ who seeks to purge his parish of witches. In doing so, he and his sons incur the wrath of Oona (Elizabeth Berringer) the head of the local coven, she calls upon a ‘sidhe’ (a magical spirit of Scottish/Irish origin – sometimes referred to as a/the ‘bean sidhe’ or banshee) to help her take revenge.

This spirit then possesses servant and lover of Whitman’s daughter Maureen (Hilary Dwyer), Roderick (Patrick Mower). Roderick, periodically transformed into a werewolf then begins to kill off the Whitman family one by one.

A slightly jumbled plot with its mix of witches, a werewolf and no actual banshee, possibly the result of Hessler’s dislike of the original script by Tim Kelley (a regular writer for T.V’s The High Chaparral), which resulted in Wicking’s rewrite. The coven perhaps bear more resemblance to a hippy or nature cult, apparently Hessler in tune with the times wanted to make the coven more ‘sympathetic’ characters but distributers American International Pictures refused.

Price almost reprises his Witchfinder General role as head witchfinder and a similarity furthered with the casting of W.G’s Hilary Dwyer, this time as his ill-fated daughter. The film makes frequent screen time for various methods of trial and ‘torture’, in the case of Banshee the depiction of these is more intriguing than horrific – this is a far less edgy production than Mark of the Devil or even The Wicker Man, in many ways it feels safer and more like a Hammer film.

Furthermore, as many have observed, Price steps back from his straighter, colder performance in Witchfinder and returns to slightly camper style more familiar with audiences. Also noteworthy is the animated title sequence by Terry Gilliam, very much like one of his sequences for the Monty Python TV series.

Audiences may also be curious to see a youthful Michael Elphick in an early cinematic role as one of Whitman’s guards, delivering his performance with a theatrical tone which differs from the ‘cockney gruffness’ of his later Brit TV roles in shows such as Boon.

 

9. The Witches aka The Devil’s Own (1966)

The Witches (1966)

Arguably Hammer Film’s only real dabble into the world of folk horror, the film was adapted from Norah Loft’s novel ‘The Devil’s Own’ by Quatermass writer/creator Nigel Kneale. Joan Fontaine stars as Gwyn Mayfield a school teacher who has returned to Britain after having suffered a breakdown, the result of a rebellion started by witchdoctors whilst teaching as a missionary in Africa.

Accepting employment at a small private school in a rural village events soon turn sinister, with headless dolls and the odd behaviour of the villagers. Eventually, it transpires that all involved in a cult/coven.

The Witches (not to be confused in anyway with 1990 film of the same name) is a perfectly watchable if perhaps slightly predictable offering with all the perfectly acceptable production standards one can expect to see from Hammer of the period. The film perhaps makes for a better mystery thriller than an outright horror – drawing comparison with The Wicker Man.

It should be noted however, that the villagers in this film are not involved in the cult as part of their own free will, nor is the coven created from a near forgotten ‘genuinely organic’ pagan past instead rather a strange hybrid of rituals.

Apparently Kneale (working under the pseudonym of Peter Curtis), was slightly dissatisfied with the final film, he wanted to take a rise out of ‘modern black magic practitioners’ – hence this strange mish-mash could well have been his intention. The Witches was Joan Fontaine’s final film, it was also Cyril Frankel’s final outing as a cinematic director.

 

8. Castle of the Living Dead (1964)

Castle of the Living Dead (1964)

Technically an Italian film (although directorial credits go to American Warren Keifer) and not ‘officially’ folk horror. It also stars Christopher Lee and features triple roles for Donald Sutherland (in his big screen debut). ‘Second unit director’ on the film, and the main reason for its inclusion in this list, was Brit Michael Reeves who would go on to direct Witchfinder General. There has been and still is some increased debate as to just how much of the film was actually the work of Reeves, something which began in 1970 with an article by Robin Wood following Reeves’ death.

The plot is rather familiar Gothic territory, Lee’s lead role as aristocratic Count Drago is in a similar vein to Hammer’s Dracula, his actions are a bit more Baron Frankenstein. Drago is acquiring bodies for experiments, and when done displays them as part of his living dead theatre.

A travelling theatre troop are warned by a witch (Sutherland) to beware the castle of the living dead but inevitably become involved in Drago’s schemes and are potentially the next exhibits in his display. Ultimately it is ‘Nick’ (so named in the English version and played by Antonio De Martino aka Skip Martin) a dwarf who must save the day – he does make for a much needed suitably empathic protagonist, maintaining audience engagement.

Reeves’ involvement appears to stem from the forming of a friendship with the film’s writer/producer Paul Maslansky (later producer of, amongst others, Race with the Devil, Return to Oz & the Police Academy films) the two of them apparently worked in redrafts of the script together.

Speculation persists that Reeves shot all of the second half of the film whilst Keifer was ill, this is a curios statement as the film definitely becomes far more interesting both in narrative and visuals in the second half – the slow start and bad-dubbing are off putting at the film’s outset.

Some have considered the Witch’s prophecies and the shot of a scythe cutting grass shortly after a death to be Reeve’s work – both aspects with potential folk horror connotations hence one could argue it is here that the seeds of Brit folk horror are sown. The film was released in the U.K by Tigon and in the U.S by American International Pictures – as Witchfinder would be four years later.

According to Reeves’ biographer Benjamin Halligan, Christopher Lee remembers more of Reeves and his enthusiasm for film making than of the film itself. Reeves himself appears in shot briefly as one of the living dead exhibits. Sutherland would later name his son after the film’s credited director.

 

7. Mark of the Devil (1970)

Mark of the Devil (1970)

Technically a West German/European co-production, eventually re-scripted and directed by Brit Michael Armstrong makes for possibly the most overtly nasty film in this list. The German title translates as ‘witches tortured until they bleed’.

Herbert Lom stars as the Chief Inquisitor who arrives in a 17th century Austrian town where aided by his young assistant (Udo Kerr) he discovers the corrupt and tortuous methods employed by the local witchfinder Albino (Reggie Naider), overthrowing him.

Matters become complicated for the young assistant when a local girl he has feelings for is to stand trial for witchcraft, throwing his otherwise loyal apprenticeship into crisis of conscience more so as he discovers his master’s motivations. Albino meanwhile plots revenge.

With its ill-fitting sound track, heavily dubbed accents (at least half a dozen languages were spoken during production) and moments of exploitative nudity and torture (featuring genuine 17th Century equipment) it would be easy to condemn Mark of the Devil as an outright ‘video nasty’ – indeed it does have a long and chequered past with regard to censorship – something it still trades on.

The signature tongue extraction scene, one of the scenes the special vomit bags were doubtless supplied for at original screenings; doesn’t make for pleasant viewing but is quite mild by modern standards.

Armstrong who had only just directed his first film (The Haunted House of Horror) has said that his experiences on this film nearly put him off directing for life, Adrian Hoven, the original writer and producer still had some creative input in the film and eventually went away to film some sequences himself, he and his own children appear in the film in a rather disjointed subplot.

With its emphasis on torture Mark of the Devil (and its sequel) perhaps marks the point at which folk horror branches off in the more exploitative European witchfinding or ‘Nunsploitation’ strand of films – Jess Franco’s The Bloody Judge is worth a mention – Ken Russell’s The Devils perhaps also fits in here. Made as a quick cash-in on Witchfinder General’s success, Mark of the Devil went on to make more money.

 

6. Robin Redbreast (1970)

Robin Redbreast (1970)

A BBC Play for Today originally broadcast on December 10th 1970. Written by John Bowen and directed by James McTaggart this one off drama sees Anna Cropper as Norah Palmer, a ‘modern’ urban woman who moves to the country after the end of a long term relationship. The locals, including Fisher (Bernard Hepton), initially appear eccentric but harmless.

Norah then encounters ‘Rob’ (Andy Bradford), a handsome young man at the peak of physical fitness; Rob also has a mysterious past. Eventually, Norah discovers she is pregnant with Rob’s chid. Events become far more sinister when the locals wish to kill Rob as part of a ritual – as it becomes apparent the whole sequence of events has been manipulated from the outset.

Now seen as a pre-cursor to the Wickerman (eventually released three years later), Robin Redbreast’s narrative establishes the same revealing of a pagan sacrificial ritual upon an unsuspecting ‘urban outsider’ – the brief dream/nightmare sequence with its fleeting images of harvest and hares conjures up echoes of a pagan world.

Originally broadcast in colour, the BBC wiped the original master tapes not long after broadcast, hence only a black and white version (only recently released) remains – this is a pity as the colours of the countryside would doubtless add to an evocation of all things natural/seasonal.

The narrative is compelling enough, although being in the Play for Today strand means that there is also the tackling of social issues, sexual promiscuity, contraception and divorce (perhaps also older woman/younger man relations) – some of these do slow the pace at times.

Some would argue that this is also folk horror being used as a rebellious genre to subvert/question perceived social norms. Bowen would go on to write for BBC TV’s Hetty Winthrope Investigates in the mid 1990’s – an episode of which Widdershins features an alleged pagan/witch cult.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    I’ve not seen all of these, but this is a genre that I’ve particularly enjoyed over the years. I recently saw a Field In England and I was intrigued but overall let down.

  • Klaus Dannick

    I truly believe that Ken Russell’s “The Devils” belongs on this list. Sure, it’s not folk-horror by a strict definition, but it’s nearer the genre than several others in the list (some by the compiler’s own admission), and it’s a better, more crucial watch than half of these.

    • Matthew Hewitt

      ‘The Devil’s’ is the great ‘lost’ classic of British cinema and remains as arresting and prescient as when it was made. To qualify though,
      a film should be about ‘British Folklore’ not just a ‘Folk movie made in Britain’. If anything Ken Russell’s masterpiece should be classified as ‘Political Horror’ a pretty sparse sub-genre – the only other example I can think of would be Saxton Logan’s ‘Sleepwalker’. Russell’s later (and joyfully outrageous) ‘Lair of the White Worm’ most certainly does qualify, though. ‘Cry of the Banshee’ and ‘The Witches’ are both very poor films (Gilliam’s title animation being the only interesting thing about the former and the latter is probably the worst Horror film Hammer made). Other possible entries could be Ben Wheatley’s earlier film ‘Kill List’ (an interesting variation on ‘The Wicker Man’ (and almost as good as ‘A Field in England’) and Powell & Pressburger’s post-war classic ‘A Canterbury Tale’. There is also loads of stuff from British television in addition to the two excellent titles included; more David Rudkin, more John Bowen, virtually anything by Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale, the various M.R James adaptations (most notably Johnathan Miller’s version of ‘O Whistle and I’ll Come to You’) and the original version of ‘The Woman in Black’ (forget the recent remake and it’s sequel) – it’s almost an embarrassment of riches once
      you start digging and shows modern TV up as the vapid and creative wasteland it is.

  • Michelle Pribbernow

    I’d add “The Ballad of Tam Lin” to the list.