The Unholy Trinity - The Origins of Folk Horror
Midsommar stands at the head of a long line of Folk horror tales spanning decades of Anglo-American superstition and folklore that has inspired almost a century of genre filmmaking.
The usual setting for this sub-genre is generally rural, wooded or removed from what we would deem civilized society and ponders the wilderness as the last vestige of the old world- pagan, animalistic and untamed. The darkness of the woods often hiding some ancient evil force that is just waiting to ensnare and corrupt the poor misguided soul that might be foolish or innocent enough to fall prey to it’s seduction. Often though the dark force at work is not some horned satanic beast but rather townsfolk and villagers, occultist or Christian zealots who serve the diabolical whims of their charismatic leader at the behest of the usually unseen chosen deity.
We are often introduced into these worlds by someone who for all intents and purposes is a guide by virtue of them being from the “real” or “civilized” world. The protagonist is entering into the land by chance or happenstance but is now trapped or unable to leave either through duty or promise or by mendacious force. This character is our eyes and brings our understanding into the bizarre ritualistic world that they now find themselves in. Usually bemused at first by strange customs but growing ever wary and skeptical of their surroundings until the barbarity of the old world ways dawn on them – often for them- all too late.
The recognizable building blocks of the sub-genre can be traced back as far as silent movies such as The Golem and The Phantom Carriage and notably 1922’s Haxan but the apparent solidification of the sub-genre coalesced with a triptych of films now referred to as The Unholy Trilogy.
The Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves)
Vincent Price stars as the eponymous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, whose murderous and mercenary holy mission sees him and his unkempt sadistic sidekick, Stearne, terrorize the east of England at the apparent behest of parliament. Their “holy” purpose- to rid the countryside of Satan’s followers one by one via any means of crude and torturous process necessary- stabbing, drowning and or simply burning them alive. As reward for their service to God and country the town magistrate obliges them with silver and they move on to the next town to find their next victim until they pick the wrong one.
Based on true events, The Witchfinder General is arguably less a horror film and more horrifying historic adaptation. The real Hopkins is reported to of personally been responsible for the torture and eventual murder of over 300 predominantly female victims. With the total number of “witches” put to death in England reportedly around 500, Hopkins was probably responsible for over two thirds of the total murders. Hopkins’ zealotry though appears more based in capitalistic opportunism and sadistic obsession than any spiritual motivation.
The Witchfinder General was released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm, re-edited to include a wrap around voice over by Price reciting from Edgar Allen Poe’s work of the same name. This was done simply to capitalize on Roger Corman’s Poe related work and to appeal to audiences already familiar with Price’s genre work.
The film is often lauded as one of Vincent Price’s finest performances. His delivery is a shade subtler than his previous repertoire, presenting Matthew Hopkins as a deadly and refined figure- calculated and cold, not interested in bravado or ostentatious pretension but instead as a dark force, commanding indiscriminate suffering upon the towns he visits and leaving it indelibly marked by the violence he inflicts upon them. It’s well documented that Price and the relatively inexperienced young director had some issues working together. Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance to play the Witchfinder but the studio wanted Price who was a bankable genre favorite. Reeves considered Price’s operatic and often larger than life dramatic style to be too hammy to properly execute the role but despite a generally prickly relationship on-set the end product has remained a firm fan favorite and marks it as a high point for both Price and the genre.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971, Dir. Piers Haggard)
Interestingly, of the Unholy Trilogy it’s worth noting that The Blood on Satan’s Claw is the only film to feature actual supernatural forces. The Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man are based in worlds that are defined by the presence (or lack thereof) of occultists and worshipers of dark powers but do not feature a defined presence of supernatural evil. The Blood on Satan’s Claw on the other hand, whilst not actually featuring Satan himself, does indeed include a demonic presence reborn.
The film tells the story of a small rural village terrorised by the resurgent demon, “Behemoth”, insidiously seducing and possessing its townsfolk in an effort to be re-constituted and resurrected. A local farmer accidentally unearths the remnants of the strange malformed beast in the field he is ploughing. Shortly after, a young woman is attacked by an unseen creature, which sets in motion a trail of possession and murder. The “possessed, usually children, each grow a patch of animal-like fur on their body, signifying their union with the demon, the patch- a literal piece of its discorporated form is flayed by the other members of the cult and used to reconstitute the demon in a ceremony at the climax of the film.
Purposefully set chronologically after the events of The Witchfinder General the film also includes several nods to its predecessor including “The Book of Witches” and several key sequences and location nods. The main signposts of the Folk Horror genre are all present- the small-secluded village, rural setting & the occult. Indeed the film presses home several key ideas within the horror genre as a whole- fear of the past, the out-dated and oft scoffed at rituals of the past- superstition and paranoia; the Christian “new” world versus a pagan bygone era resurgent.
The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy)
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is a seminal horror film and is widely regarded as a classic of British cinema (even featuring in the 2012 Olympic Game opening ceremony). Wanting to move away from the gothic macabre horror that had preceded it Hardy and renowned genre star Christopher Lee wanted to work together to create something more elevated and cerebral rather than simply re-tread the well-worn path of the old Hammer Horror films.
Loosely based on the book “Ritual” by David Pinner the film was written by Anthony Shaffer who took elements of the book and entwined it with juxtaposing elements of religions both old & new and conjured a confrontation between a modern Christian puritanical lawman and a remote, pagan community headed by the mysterious Lord Summerisle (Lee).
Edward Woodward plays Police Sergeant Neil Howie, sent to Summerisle, a remote Hebridean island, to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. From the moment of his arrival Howie- a straight-laced conservative is taken aback by the islanders strange customs and suspicious evasion of his investigations. The island is removed from civilization and yet familiar in its trappings- the local pub, the nosey/gossiping locals, the corner shop and post office. It possesses in its familiarity though an uncanny dream like reality where occasionally we are reminded that all is not right- a toad is casually popped into the mouth of a little girl as a remedy for a sore throat, spontaneous song, overt unashamed sexuality and naked ritualistic dance.
As we experience the eccentricities and peculiarities with Howie the truth is slowly revealed. What begins as mere oddities turn into sinister revelations until the truth of the missing girl become apparent. Howie has been lured there, not to find the missing girl, but to become the sacrifice himself. The pure, virginal fool, who has entered this world willingly and has by his own stoic moral code, passed the islanders test.
Christopher Lee is magnificent as the island’s patriarch, Lord Summerisle and plays wonderfully against type- positively upbeat and is all the more sinister for it. Interestingly presenting a superb juxtaposition to Woodward’s uptight police sergeant, Summerisle is flamboyant and open and yet is just as rock-fast in his firm beliefs as Howie.
The Wicker Man’s stunning finale is rightly lauded for its powerful and shocking conclusion. As Howie is led to his fate he sees the eponymous Wicker Man, in which he will meet his maker. “Oh my god, Jesus Christ!” he exclaims appealing to a saviour who has forsaken him.
It’s worth also noting the musical scores for all three films of the trilogy are outstanding. Particularly The Wicker Man’s music, both score and songs are key to its mesmeric atmosphere. In all three the folksy music plays to almost undermine the sinister nature of the premise that we as viewers have already understood we’re entering into. The score acts counter to that impending darkness. They’re light and melodic and taken on their own merits are celebratory and uplifting without any shade of the melodramatic gothic nature of the horror films that it stands with.
In re-watching The Unholy Trilogy is interesting to see the beginnings of a long and fertile lineage of films whose DNA is clearly recognizable and whose family tree has long and winding roots. Indeed when looking at Midsommar through this lens it’s easy to see it as a clear descendant of the three, the resemblance is uncanny. It deals with a modern world bereft of intimacy and one that is removed from kinship and family only to juxtapose this world with the strange and literally removed rural community where we are again welcomed into a community that both thrives on its own objectively horrific terms but also possesses a kinship and sense of family that residents of Summerisle may well recognize and embrace.
The long and lurid lineage is testament to an evolving and abstract genre that has inspired a long list of entries that sit comfortably in the sub-genre or happily rest across several categories and are the richer for it- The Devil Rides Out (1968) The Company of Wolves (1984), , The Devils (1971), The VVitch (2016), A Field in England (2008), Wakewood (2009), Kill List (2011), Apostle (2018) are some of the more obvious choices but its also easy to draw a line to comedy projects such as The League of Gentlemen (“A local shop for local people…”) and Hot Fuzz (2007, small rural setting, cult/ritualistic townsfolk and, well, Edward Woodward). Folk Horror it seems will remain as one of the last truly scary or unsettling sub-genres concerned as it is with the darkness not of the abyss but of the human heart and mind.