5 bloody good entries for a modern folk horror canon
Plenty elements of modern folk horror can be traced directly to the genre’s forerunners, creators who wisely made use of landscape and beliefs to conjure dread.
The 2021 documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched makes an excellent case for movies like Eyes of Fire and Children of the Corn laying down the foundations of fear for later masters to dig into, resulting in today’s Ari Asters and Na Hong-jins.
Here are some great new entries from the last four years that argue for a fresh canon of very modern folk horror from the last few years. Might they eventually become canon?
In the Earth (2021)—Lost in plant translation
Clint Mansell’s haunting score deploying an army of very tasteful synths is one of the best things about this modest movie with epic movie ambitions. The atmosphere really wouldn’t be the same folk horror feast when viewing the exquisite landscape scenes on this underrated hit.
Nominally, it’s about a team of UK scientists engaged in research that’s trying to improve harvests during an alternate future where a crop pandemic has resulted in a worldwide food shortage.
Head research expert Dr. Olivia Wendle has unfortunately been incommunicado for a good long while and her colleagues have been worried about her. So Dr. Martin Lowery joins park scout Alma to scour the vast woods that’s supposed to be one of their research locations.
What they encounter and find out there is more than just your usual walk in the woods. And things get even weirder when they finally meet up with Dr. Wendle. The good doctor doesn’t seem to be all there. She keeps harping on about how, to primitive civilizations, folks who possess advanced enough technology will be viewed as and indistinguishable from magicians. She’s also convinced that the trees, the flowers, and the weeds, basically the whole flora, share a telepathic hive mind that enable them to communicate to each other. Wendle has already gained inroads into hijacking the signal and listening in on the plant life. She believes it’s just a matter of finding the right wavelength for humans to be able to talk to them, too.
Trying to make sense of this fevered dream of a druid and agriculture gods story that’s masquerading as a psychedelic sci-fi movie is like trying to wrestle control over your visions during a mushroom trip. Has Dr. Wendle gone mad or is another entity responsible for luring them all to the woods?
To pull off this off-kilter gem, writer and director Ben Wheatley marries diverse elements of folk horror with sci-fi. Even as the events go from weird to surreal and then mosey over to elder god territory, there’s a kick-ass narrative payoff waiting in the third act.
Despite the odd choices in editing affecting pacing, the stuttering starts and stops, and glossing over plot points that should very likely be developed, In the Earth has won a cult following with its brooding atmospherics and ambitious scope that urges the narrative into the realm of rousing fable.
Watch In the Earth on Prime Video
Gretel and Hansel (2020)—Reworked fable, now with folk horror spice
The ebb and flow of the original Grimm’s fairy tale may be a familiar one, but director Osgood Perkins, who was also behind The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and screenwriter Rob Hayes manage to wrangle new blood out of an old yarn by switching crucial elements and infusing more brutal Grand Guignol into the proceedings.
For one thing, the hapless siblings don’t get lost in the woods, they’re evicted from their home by a cruel and likely insane mother who urges them to “Dig yourself some pretty little graves” when she gives them the boot.
It’s still a medieval setting after all and the storytelling smarts on this movie slowly reveal themselves when the house and the witch come into play. Alice Krige as the venerable and kind Holda is a suspicious character from the get-go, but beggars who are starving can’t be picky. She’s plying Hansel with treats and playthings to keep him docile, and giving Gretel breadcrumbs of revelation that hint at a hidden power she may possess. The literal and psychic feast that the old woman regularly lays out for the kids is effective. Both bro and sis soon relax their guard, staying at the stranger’s cottage for an unwise amount of time.
Gretel, the elder of the two and certainly with a better head on her shoulders than Hansel, urges them to just go because things don’t add up. Where does Holda get the regular feasts when there’s no farm around? Why is the cottage way bigger on the inside? And why is she having intensely vivid dreams and visions?
Holds is relentless in her fawning and flattery of Gretel. Will the young Gretel opt to live deliciously given the chance? Though you may think you know where this folk horror rework is going and how it ends, I can assure you that a few plot twists are waiting to prove your conjectures are likely wrong.
Watch Gretel and Hansel on Prime Video
Candyman (2021)—Haunted in the big city
In the cities, the urban legend takes the place of folk tales, yet the atmosphere and frisson of a bloody legend remains.
When something as iconic as the Candyman franchise gets a reboot for the current age by director Nia DaCosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, even the marketing tag of “Say his name” conjures the systemic, repeating agonies that were only filigree metaphors in the original movies. This time they have a sheen for our current milieu.
The origins of the first Candyman are traced back to a 19th century black slave who was tortured, maimed, then executed by a mob for daring to love a wealthy white woman. The 2021 movie posits that the hate resulting from his tragedy lived on, jumping from one mob-executed black man to the next, the avenging spirit passed down through a death borne with conditions of racial enmity.
This time the setting is a recently gentrified housing project in Chicago and the new Candyman will soon be black artist Anthony McCoy, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. A clever reworking of the old tale given renewed energy by positing the Black and minority issues of the day as repeating templates of hate, you sometimes wonder if it’s too clever and winking at you from between the clever lines, but there’s always enough blood and horror to please a fan of the genre.
The mythic power of the original movies by Clive Barker and Bernard Rose still hold much sway in pop culture that, according to an interview on The Guardian, even the director has refused to let actors complete the “Say his name five times” mirror ritual during auditions.
“Oh hell, no. Never have done, never will,” said DaCosta. “In fact, when I was watching auditions, I would get a little freaked out so I’d stop the audition before they said it all five times. So silly…I’m just not gonna put myself in the space for my brain to play tricks on me.”
I mean, why tempt fate with the hive, right?
Watch Candyman on Prime Video
You Won’t Be Alone (2022)—The unbearable loneliness of a witch
Sure this one is a horror movie, albeit a very slow burn one that often tests the viewer’s patience. Yet to call it just a folk horror tale would be to miss the many nuances and changing dynamics of someone who can live many lifetimes over, becoming less monster and more human capable of love and being loved.
In 19th-century Macedonia, a young girl is promised by her mother to an ancient spirit called a Wolf Eateress. The witch has marked the baby as her own. The mother pleads with the deformed monster with burn injuries to delay her claim, saying that she can come back for the child when she’s 16.
When the baby Nevena becomes a teenager her mother hides her in a cave, trying to keep the monster from claiming the young girl. The Wolf Eateress, named Maria, eventually discovers her and then proceeds to transform Nevena into a witch like herself, immortal and able to change shape by filling a literal hole in her torso with viscera and other body parts.
I don’t know much about Serbian-Macedonian folklore but The Wolf Eateress in director Goran Stolevski’s movie seems to be a tremendously powerful being you wouldn’t want as an enemy. She never dies. She can become anyone and anything with the right kill. And she’s unrelenting, as the witch Maria hounds her apprentice Nevena, through her many forms and human disguises.
See, Nevena is a failure of an immortal in Maria’s eyes, as she attempts to live as human as possible, unlike her master and maker who believes that viewing humanity as other than food or a literal change of clothing is a fanciful delusion. Maria tries to sabotage every life that Nevena tries to inhabit as other human forms—no matter how long it takes or where she hides.
Through the years it becomes clear to the viewer that Nevena and Maria are inherently different Wolf Eateresses. Maria is nurtured by hatred, anger, and envy. While Nevena has chosen to be governed by curiosity, kindness, and a yearning for true connection. “How can it be so easy for you?” Maria cries in frustration seeing Nevena fall in love after the years of hate in her heart have yielded no reward.
At the heart of it, this slow burn of a story, where Noomi Rapace is just one of the human forms of Nevena, isn’t about the enmity between dulling feral immortals, but about how extreme loneliness and jealousy can warp you. It’s a classic cautionary fable, something that wouldn’t be amiss if there ever was a catechism for witchy Wolf Eateresses. For these monsters, even jealousy is preferable to facing the fear of being forever alone.
Watch You Won’t Be Alone on Apple TV
Antlers (2021)—Modern folk horror with horns
“I just have to feed him and he’ll love me,” says the abused boy Lucas to his teacher.
That’s the keening emotive note that’s held throughout the movie by director Scott Cooper. Co-produced by Guillermo del Toro and based on Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” this here is a story about how vicious old hate in the form of a Native American monster has come to a small town in modern day Oregon.
Antlers invites folk horror into today’s real life conditions. Particularly in the life of an abused child who seeks unreturned love from his father, Frank. See, Frank is a working-class man, a single dad with two sons, so dirt poor that he and his friend have turned to cooking meth as their side gig. They’ve setup shop at one of the town’s old abandoned mining caves, making it into a temporary lab. Some-thing attacks the meth cooks one night and soon Frank is turning into a cursed creature called a Wendigo. It’s damn hard to be hardscrabble poor in rural backwoods America and the horror of that condition could well be its own tragic fable.
Kerri Russel is the reason-bound outsider here playing the concerned teacher Julia, who discovers that her student Lucas has been making some very disturbing illustrations. Soon we see Lucas taking home road kill and other dead small critters to cut them up and feed them to some messed up creatures living in his locked attic. What’s a teacher to do?
Sure there’s plenty of literal blood, guts, and body horror here but this movie also tackles current themes like domestic abuse, opioid addiction, and poverty in rural America. It’s not perfect. There’s some glaring and frustrating choices depicting police procedural, as well as a confusing lack of help from shamanic sources despite the fact that the creature is from Native American myth. Did they even try to get assistance from the only Indian person in the local police force?
While the elements don’t always come together, what won me over were the themes exploring ways out of the environmental constrictions of abused lives, how there can be resolutions to trauma and grief through the right help—often from unexpected sources.
Watch Antlers on Hulu
Did we miss anything that might be added to the recent crop of modern folk horror? Tell us in the comments section.