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Hallowed Ground: Folk Horror In British Film

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As Corin Hardy's The Hallow debuts a new trailer, our thoughts turned to British folk horror in general.* Can we call it a real genre? At its core the tradition seems only really to comprise three films: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General; Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw; and of course, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. As we’ll see however, like meddling antiquarians in an M.R. James story, there’s more to be found if you dig.

*The Hallow's setting is actually Irish, but go with us.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Let’s start with the most obvious and arguably the best, although The Wicker Man is almost an imposter as folk horror canon. While it feels disturbingly authentic, it’s almost entirely invented: an outsider’s view of a mythical Scotland, written and directed by Englishmen and scored by an American. Paul Giovanni’s music, though it feels traditional and “real”, is largely comprised of original compositions. British vocal ensemble the Mediaeval Baebes have often made a joke of incorporating the Summerisle song (“In the wood there grew a tree…”) into their medieval sets, despite its having been anachronistically written in 1973. There aren’t even many accounts in history of wicker men genuinely being used for sacrificial burnings.


The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970)

The Blood On Satan’s Claw aims explicitly at the supernatural, with the Devil beginning to manifest in a field in England, and slowly strengthening his power by harvesting skin from the local youth, who have formed an impromptu cult. “The nooks and crannies of woodland,” Piers Haggard explained to Mark Gatiss for his BBC History of Horror, “the edges of fields, the ploughing, the labour, the sense of the soil, was something I tried to bring to The Blood on Satan’s Claw. We dug an awful lot of holes to put the camera in. It was important to me to have it often very low, to give you the feeling that we were somehow in the earth.”

“The central theme of the whole film was the stamping out of the old religions, not by Christianity, but by an atheistic belief that all sorts of things must be blocked out of the mind,” explained writer Robert Wynne-Simmons. “So the Judge represents a dogged enlightenment, if you like, who is saying 'Don't let these things lurk in dark corners. Bring it out into the open and then get rid of it…'”


Witchfinder General (1968)

The other side of the coin, Witchfinder General is a more straight historical drama, set slightly earlier than The Blood On Satan’s Claw (both came from the same studio, Tigon) and interested in religious fanaticism rather than “real” witches. “Michael [Reeves, the director, who died tragically young soon afterwards] always said we were making a Western,” its star Ian Ogilvy told Empire a couple of years ago. “It doesn’t look like it was made on a shoestring, but it wasn’t a terribly comfortable film to make. We were out in the wilds of Norfolk, and it was summer… but it was summer in Norfolk! It was bleak and brutal, although it wasn’t unremittingly gloomy in that Swedish way; there’s a lot of exciting stuff in it. Vincent [Price] was not happy. He was used to a nice comfortable studio!”


A Field In England (2013)

A strange tale of soldiers and an alchemist’s assistant having a Very Bad Day during the English Civil War. “I grew up in Essex next to some woods,” said director Ben Wheatley, “and I had very vivid nightmares about the surrounding area. I’d have recurring dreams about a farm building that was near to us – and I still have them now. For me, it was primal terror about the environment I lived in. I think over time that mutated into an interest in why the countryside is scary, or why England is scary.”

As in The Wicker Man, music is important to Wheatley too. His Down Terrace features a folk-singing family with a constant undercurrent of simmering violence, while A Field In England’s soundtrack includes the traditional 'Baloo, My Boy'. “The idea is that the music in the first half is stuff they could play or sing themselves,” says Wheatley. But it also echoes Reeves’ vision of Witchfinder General as an English Civil War Western, in the introduction of “a Morricone twang”, in turn replaced by “full synth” as the characters begin to succumb to their psychedelic ordeal. “The music time travels,” explains the director.


Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1972)

Thinking of Hammer in connection with British folk horror, your mind might switch immediately to all those sequences of horse-drawn coaches racing through woodland (usually the same woodland, in Black Park by Pinewood Studios). But it’s worth remembering that while they look for all the world like England, those films are supposed to be happening in Eastern Europe: maybe they’re volk-horror.

The woodland cultists in Ben Wheatley's Kill List slightly recall some events in Hammer's The Devil Rides Out, however (based on the Dennis Wheatley novel - no relation), and another late Hammer exception is Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, which reverses the English-abroad trope by having a swashbuckling German blade tracking idiosyncratic aging-plague vampires in 17th century England, employing folk magic like burying toads at roadsides to track a vampire’s route. Its Buckinghamshire/Hertfordshire locations remain the same as ever though. Even for its The Hound Of The Baskervilles (another one rooted in invented legends), Hammer declined even to make the trek to Dartmoor and stayed in Surrey.

The Borderlands (2013)

Another one that was originally supposed to shoot on Dartmoor but decided to move is Elliot Goldner’s The Borderlands, which eventually went ahead near the Devonshire market town of Newton Abbot. The story involves a team from the Vatican responding to reports from a worried priest about supernatural phenomena at a rural church.

“It was originally supposed to be Brentor,” Goldner told us, “which is a little church built on this sort of cliff edge in the middle of nowhere. You wonder how anyone ever got up there for ceremonies. Dartmoor is a magical place anyway: it has a very spiritual vibe about it. This church has lots of stories about the Devil visiting it and things like that. The West Country still has a 'lost in the past-ness' about it. We wanted Borderlands to be weirdness-in-the-West-Country. The title isn’t supposed to be something specific, but can refer to this strange hinterland where the countryside meets the town.” It also invokes William Hope Hodgson’s 1908 novel The House On The Borderland, with which it shares a plot device of an uncovered journal written by an incumbent of the site many years past. Hodgson’s double meaning, in which the land is also a portal to another cosmic plain, has a vague corollary in the film’s final stretch.


The Owl Service (1969)

This TV serial was, extraordinarily, intended for children, broadcast over eight weeks at the end of 1969 and the beginning of 1970. Adapted by Alan Garner from his own novel it takes place in Wales, with the fractious relationship between the Welsh and English cultures an important part of the subtext. The superbly strange tale involves three children destined to repeat the events of a violent love triangle from a local legend, recounted in The Mabinogion. Previous generations have attempted to bind some dark magic in works of art (the titular dinner service; a wall painting) but obviously with limited results. A standing stone and a tree containing ancient artefacts form important parts of the story. For a time series like this weren’t unusual on British kids’ TV. See also, for example, the terrifying Children Of The Stones (1978), about a village within a megalithic stone circle (it was filmed in Avebury), which has some overlap with The Owl Service in that it’s about events repeating themselves.


A Ghost Story For Christmas (1971-1978)

Ghost story master M.R. James enjoyed an interesting afterlife at the BBC during the 1970s, where several of his tales were adapted for one-off dramas shown at Christmas. All are currently available on DVD in a BFI collection. The stories adapted include A Warning To The Curious, based on James’ invented legend of The Three Crowns Of Anglia, buried to protect England from invasion and guarded by supernatural sentinels; The Stalls Of Barchester, about the curse of a 17th century carver of cathedral decorations; The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas, about a theologian searching for the best-left-alone trove of a disgraced predecessor; and The Ash Tree, in which a man inherits a house chillingly cursed by an ancestors involvement in the 17th Century witch trials. James, himself a medieval scholar, was fond of making his stories’ protagonists meddling antiquarians, whose investigations unearth things better left buried. When the annual series left James behind, there was still a further BBC Christmas folk-horror yarn in a more modern style that nevertheless tapped into even older horrors. Clive Exton’s Stigma, an original piece for television, involves a family who attempt to move part of an ancient stone circle in their garden, unearthing the ritually sacrificed witch and her attendant curse buried beneath.


Quatermass And The Pit (1967)

One more from Hammer (or the BBC if you prefer the original TV series), written by the great Nigel Kneale, who here crashes folklore head-on into science and sci-fi. Professor Quatermass investigates ghostly goings on at the Hobbs Lane tube station (“Hob” being an old name for the Devil) where an archaeological dig has turned up something dangerous. The “devils” turn out to be Martians, stranded centuries ago, dormant but still psychologically powerful. A visit to an antiquarian at The British Library reveals that much of our folkloric history is a garbled version of a genuine threat that comes from space rather than the supernatural. And folklore has the answers to defeat the evil. The Martian devils, like all bad elves, are beaten with iron.


Eden Lake (2008)

“I wanted to show housing estates and kids wearing hoods and stuff like that, because I think that’s the thing: when you go to the British countryside now you can find beautiful spots, but equally you’ll find places that look like they’re inner-city.” So said Elliot Goldner of The Borderlands, and you’ll also find that, a few years earlier, in 2008’s Eden Lake. Here kids in hoodies murder middle class intruders in the woods near housing estates. In many ways, James Watkins’ brutal endurance test is actually a savage satire of English Daily Mail attitudes to modern yoot. But see also Ciarán Foy’s Citadel, where the hoodies really are evil homunculi. Our demons are changing form, but they're folkloric constructions all the same.