The Gloucestershire village at which our heroine (Jessie Buckley) arrives near the beginning of Men is far too pretty to be harmless: you just know something rotten has to lie at the heart of it, inches below all that lush greenery. Alex Garland’s creepy, daffy, already somewhat underrated film – now streamable on Amazon – may probe male toxicity and female endangerment with a distinctly #MeToo-era lens, but it’s also rooted in a sturdy, shivery tradition of British folk horror, where the myths and traditions of the land become their own kind of threat.
They’re embodied in the shape-shifting form of Rory Kinnear, playing the multiple men of this village, but also a single, villainous spirit of masculinity. Riffing obliquely on the mythos of the Green Man, Garland’s script depicts gendered violence as something ancient and ritualised at the heart of our culture, a curse to somehow be broken. That makes it a pleasingly postmodern, self-aware entry in the annals of folk horror cinema, a genre in which earthy violence and sexuality can be more exploitatively presented.
It’s certainly a far cry from the visceral shock of the three films generally regarded as the cornerstones of British folk horror: The Wicker Man (multiple platforms), of course, with its unsettling missing-person investigation blooming into a full pagan springtime freakout on a remote Hebridean island. The tradition driving Robin Hardy’s film – from its lore to its baleful imagery to its haunting folk songs – was, however, largely self-invented, and now so heavily copied that it has started to feel culturally entrenched way past 1973.
Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (1968; multiple platforms) has a little more of a historical foundation, being loosely based on the 17th-century exploits of real-life witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (given some fairly un-English horror-villain flair by Vincent Price). Still joltingly brutal and unnerving, it’s centred on a man who falsely claims to murder women as a matter of appointed duty, not personal misogyny – there’s a flicker of progressive awareness here beneath the grisly spectacle. (A shame that Reeves, who died aged 25 the year after its release, never got to mature with the genre.) Piers Haggard’s unimprovably titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971; multiple platforms), meanwhile, really perfected the genre’s sense of evil planted in the literal earth of the countryside. Its story of a village’s demonic possession is essentially silly; what sticks is how the film makes its rustic landscape charged and alien.
Other B-films of that era helped firm up the rules of folk horror without attaining quite the same status. Cry of the Banshee (1970; Amazon) was essentially a Witchfinder General knockoff, starring Price as another deranged witch-hunter, and rather spuriously shoehorning Edgar Allan Poe into the mix; it’s a deliciously lurid curio. The 1967 Hammer horror Quatermass and the Pit (BFI Player), on the other hand, is most interesting for its innovative merging of folk horror with extraterrestrial sci-fi.
More recently, Ben Wheatley has been described as the genre’s 21st-century steward, prior to his more Hollywood exploits. Kill List (2011; free on All 4) represents a tight, nasty update, lacing a PTSD-afflicted soldier’s grim, worst-nightmare scenario with occult complexities, while A Field in England (2013; multiple platforms) plunged more indulgently into the genre’s trippiest medieval extremities. It’s more of an acquired taste, and not at all frightening, but folky it certainly is.
Finally, Corin Hardy’s 2015 chiller The Hallow (multiple platforms) proves that the genre is no less at home in the Irish countryside, though there’s less rural tweeness in the film’s haunted forest – just age-old baby-snatching terror.
Also new on streaming and DVD
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