I first heard of the subgenre Folk Horror when watching Mark Gatiss’s wonderful BBC series A History of Horror in 2010. Gatiss didn’t coin the term, but his series introduced me to this corner of the horror world.
When you think Folk Horror I'd say the thing that comes to mind is The Unholy Trinity. Three British films made in the sixties and seventies which, while not linked by plot or character, share sensibilities we accept as Folk Horror:
Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man.
There has been a recent revival in Folk Horror from Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England to an audio play adaptation of Blood on Satan’s Claw from Bafflegab, released with Audible, featuring Mark Gatiss himself, Alice Lowe and Reece Shearsmith (one of Mark Gatiss’ fellow Gentlemen). In fact there's an argument for placing The League of Gentlemen as the seed for the Folk Horror revival.
With this revival in mind I would like to take a few posts to celebrate some of the best (and worst) offerings in this subgenre- my own Unholy Trinity (which might stretch the definition of trinity).
The first film I'm going to put forward in the Hermanos of Horror Unholy Trinity is:
THE RITUAL (2017)
In one of last year's episodes we spoke about having seen the trailer for The Ritual at the cinema having grabbed both of us as a film we were excited about. I didn't get around to seeing The Ritual auf kino, but I watched it at the weekend and loved it so much it has made my personal Unholy Trinity.
Horror is a genre often overlooked or looked down on (see our post on Tobe Hooper's absence at this year's Oscars). Part of this I think stems from people without much experience of horror having a come to an opinion about what it means to be a horror film. Horror isn't just mindless slashers (not all slashers are mindless (being mindless isn't necessarily a bad thing)) for example, and one of the things I loved about The Ritual is it's intelligence.
On one level it is a film that we have seen before, a group of old friends hike into unfamiliar terrain, they go off piste and get embroiled in something ancient, dark and fatal. This isn't the entirety of The Ritual, it is also a film about loss and grief and fear. Not only is it a film that sets out to provoke fear in its audience it is about fear. Intelligence in a horror film is not something new, but it is something that is often ignored. Saw is a fiercely intelligent film- it is also unflinching in its brutality. Scream is a fiercely intelligent film- it is also self-referential, vicious and very funny. The Ritual is a fiercely intelligent film- it is also creepy, ominous and bloody.
There is a fragility to The Ritual. The characters and their relationships always seem to be at breaking point, a single word is enough to put them at each other's throats. Sadness and anger lying between them as much in what they don't say as the brittle, often barbed, dialogue they do have. As this group of friends, struggling with loss, hike through the woods they snap branches and twigs off the trees, they smash a chair in a seemingly abandoned cabin- the film is full of these thoughtless, casual, small acts of violence to the landscape. They are tourists in this country, but they don't afford it respect and the casual nature of their small acts- snapping a twig- is reflected in the casual nature of the bigger acts of violence.
Like A Quiet Place, The Ritual isn't afraid to take it's time or use silence. While The Ritual doesn't have the same level of silence, there was one particularly striking moment where the hikers first enter the forest and are swallowed up. One of them makes the point that the trees suffocate sound and for a while all we hear are the sounds of them moving through the trees, snapping twigs maybe to create some other noise.
The use of sound in The Ritual from the score to the oppressive sound of rain is great. The performances are great (Rafe Spall and Arsher Ali in particular). The script adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill's novel is sparse and witty (I especially loved the use of "Brexit" instead of "Cheese" when posing for a photograph, which I feel sums up how some British people feel when they go to other European countries since the referendum; there is a tension there which, in The Ritual, ends in bloodshed). It's to David Bruckner's credit that these have been brought together in a great film which, to a lesser extent than A Quiet Place, left me with the feeling the I had gone through something with the characters.
I think The Ritual isn't something that I haven't seen before, it's not trying to completely reinvent the wheel- Arsher Ali's character describing the cabin in the woods as the place they're going to die is a nod of the head to all the cabin in the woods horrors from Evil Dead to Cabin in the Woods. It is a film with a definite kinship to The Wicker Man, they share the sense that out in the middle of nowhere anything can happen and that away from urban areas the connection with folk lore is more tangible, more present- the roots are exposed. I felt there is also a connection to something like Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes- what happens out in the middle of nowhere stays in the middle of nowhere. So while not wholly original it is far from derivative, it is a well crafted, intelligent example of contemporary Folk Horror and it is the first of the Hermanos of Horror Unholy Trinity.
In the next post we'll be looking at the second installment in our Unholy Trinity...