The October Movie Club: Folk Horror

The October Movie Club: Folk Horror

The October Movie Club is not a particularly interesting name. And the concept isn’t particularly original. It was only established three or four years ago—precise records have not been kept—so it can’t even boast of an impressive history. Nevertheless, when people ask me if I’m religious, I often think about my commitment to The October Movie Club.

Our doctrine is concerned with the ever-evolving quest for legitimately scary (a fraught term, to be sure) movies. Our theology is based on producers and directors and subgenres and the churning currents of pop culture. Our congregation is ad hoc and informal—either a few or many or even solo. Our sacrament is administered four to five times a year, once a week, every Saturday of (or near) October when we gather to watch that week’s selection.

Best-of lists of dubious authority have been scoured for the best of the best scary movies, but, ultimately, each movie is picked through an informal process that usually involves the outsized influence of whoever happens to be hosting: if it’s my couch, and I don’t want to watch it, then it’s out.

Some selections are exploratory, and some are reaffirmations of received wisdom. We’ve watched the classics (Psycho, The Shining, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.), the cult classics (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, The Re-Animator, etc.), the exotic imports (Audition, among others), the modern classics (The Witch, It Follows, Hereditary, etc.), and countless unvetted pretenders.

It is because of The October Movie Club that at the end of each September I subscribe to Shudder, the self-proclaimed “largest uncut, ad-free selection of horrors, thrillers, and suspense,” and, at the beginning of each November, I unsubscribe.

The October Movie Club is actually about watching movies. This is not an excuse for socializing as so many of these endeavors tend to be the further we advance into our 30s. If you have been invited, the text message has been direct and to the point: “We r watch scary movie Saturday @ my house. 9pm. DO NOT COME if u dont want 2 watch. No talking. No phones out. Pumpkin squares will be served.”

This year, for me, the October Movie Club began informally—a solo affair—by revisiting Ari Aster’s 2019 sophomore effort Midsommar. But it’s hard for me to think about Midsommar without also thinking about Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and Nicolas Cage.

The Wicker Man is scary, but not necessarily in the way that many people would expect.

I should probably mention at this point that I want to be scared by scary movies, but that I’m often left wanting in this regard. I can be scared, for sure. But for whatever reason I have a high threshold for it. For instance, one time I went to see Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks at the Urban Lounge—a fine, if shabby venue. I’m embarrassed to say that I had a pretty bad cold but had decided to go anyway, and I brought a dose of DayQuil with me that I was planning on taking right when I got to the venue. I was a little wary about people watching me pop pills out in the open, so I found a quiet corner, took out the pills, and immediately dropped them on the floor, at which point they rolled under some kind of cabinet. As smoothly and inconspicuously as possible, I knelt down and blindly felt around for the pills. I found them—among other things, and, maybe, among other pills.

It was dark. I could no longer be sure what was in my hand, but I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, tossed whatever was in my hand into my mouth, and swallowed. Should this have scared me? Probably. Did it? Certainly not enough.  

So. High threshold.

But, like I said, The Wicker Man is scary, just maybe not in the way you’re used to. It’s one of what Kieran Fisher calls “the unholy trinity” of “folk horror” films in his essay on the subject. Folk horror, he says, deals with tales that “are set in the countryside or rural regions, and often present the juxtaposition between lush, pastoral scenery and cruel, horrific terror. These settings give the films a strong visual aesthetic, but they’re also a key component of another theme that defines the genre: isolation.”

While it is certainly true that The Wicker Man’s setting is one of its defining characteristics—it was filmed in small Scottish towns and is meant to take place on a remote rural island in the Hebrides, an area known as a primary source of Scottish Gaelic culture—it is the cultural isolation, perhaps more so than the geographic isolation, that provides an unusual type of horror for the film’s protagonist.

Still from Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973). Howie attempts to understand "art."

The Wicker Man tells the story of Police Sergeant Neil Howie, who has flown himself to the far-flung island of Summerisle after receiving a report of a missing girl named Rowan. The people of Summerisle are immediately and astonishingly uncooperative with his investigation, and their refusal to honor the norms of modern civilization by even pretending to assist Howie in his efforts is one of the more frustrating and creepy aspects of this film, and the genre itself.

The rejection of the social contract constitutes a brand of horror that is indirectly but thoroughly unsettling because the effects of it are so absolute: the individual depends on society not just for safety but for the safeguard of almost every aspect of one’s identity; if the individual can no longer depend on society, then the individual is in real existential danger. Physically, one’s safety is compromised, but conceptually, too, one’s sense of self is compromised.

This is particularly true of someone like Howie, whose career is dependent on the institutions of power in his society, but the threat is not limited to his career. One’s sense of self is defined by one’s relationship to the community. Remove the society, and Howie has no authority; remove the community, and Howie has no way of defining himself as an individual. This begins to eat at Howie, and, of course, Hardy manages to transfer this anxiety to the audience as well.

But Howie’s plight is reinforced by his intense commitment to Christianity. He is immediately divested of any sense of community with the people of Summerisle not just through their refusal to respect his authority as a policeman, but also by their overt paganism, and this is the most important aspect of The Wicker Man’s brand of folk horror: Howie is fundamentally culturally isolated from these people.

When The Wicker Man was released in 1973, Britain, like The United States, was in the middle of a sexual revolution, and it’s useful to think about the film in that context. It is a movie about the horror of cultural shifts. As a devout Christian, when Howie sees people openly copulating in the fields and children learning about phallic symbolism in school, it is the equivalent of Jamie Lee Curtis watching her friends die at the hands of Halloween’s Michael Meyers.

In 2020, living in the world that the sexual revolution created, it’s worth considering whether or not Howie’s reaction can be properly understood by today’s audiences. When Willow, the landlord’s daughter, dances for Howie in an attempt to seduce him, the scene is obviously sexually explicit, but it doesn’t scare the audience. If anything, the scene is goofy (she’s singing the whole time), and it recalls the anecdote that midway through the production, Hardy, seemingly apropos of nothing, announced that they were now making a musical. Accordingly, there are some ‘70s-style pastoral singer/songwriter moments as well as some bawdy sing-alongs that all go a long way toward establising The Wicker Man’s bizarre tone.

It’s silly. It feels like some kind of farce. But, from Howie’s point of view, Willow’s seductive dance—which he manages to resist—carries the weight of attempted murder, and his escape from Willow is like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Sally jumping into the back of the passing truck, barely escaping from the enraged Leatherface.

Howie’s antiquated Christian perspective, and the horror that he experiences as it clashes with the culture of Summerisle, makes it entirely possible that only in places where puritanical attitudes about sex are still alive and well can this aspect of folk horror still work on the audience, which is to say that perhaps only in places like Utah can Howie’s response be appreciated. Utah, where the sexual revolution penetrated only so far, and abstinence-only sex ed is still the law of the land because lawmakers are more afraid of premarital sex than the social consequences of premarital sex. Howie’s not carrying a Book of Mormon around, but he’s a great surrogate for a certain brand of the Mormon experience: the anxiety of a living anachronism.

Still from Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973). Christopher Lee goes down in history as one of film's most interesting bad hosts. Note Howie in the the background.

This is the power of The Wicker Man in 2020: the cultural time machine. And while its conclusion gets a lot of attention and lots of scariest-moment fingers pointed in its direction, for my money, what makes it scary is not that people are willing to lure an innocent man to his certain death by preying on his good intentions and then burning him alive in a giant wicker man. No. What makes it really scary is the folk horror genre’s ability to completely disorient the characters and audience by removing all of the usual safeguards: the familiar trappings of civilization have been replaced with the sinister austerity of the rural; our dependence on the authority of the state has been exploited by the blind power of nature; the comfort of the (seemingly) moral code propagated by modern (religious) creeds has been supplanted by the irrevocable and xenophobic embrace of ancient mysteries.

But The Wicker Man’s function as a cultural time machine also means that it can feel dated: although “classics” tend to transcend the mutability of time, The Wicker Man’s place as an observer of the anxieties of the sexual revolution tie it to that era in a way that is more difficult to ignore and harder to appreciate than bad hair and goofy clothes, so perhaps an updated version doesn’t seem out of order (in the same way that unnecessary remakes often do). But is it possible to update The Wicker Man? Is it possible to jettison that specific cultural commentary and still have a movie worth watching?

If the true horror of Hardy’s Wicker Man depends on Howie’s Christian revulsion in the face of free love, then it’s worth noting that the famously bad 2006 remake, directed by Neil LaBute, is bad at least in part because it drops almost all of this religious culture horror in favor of…well,…something else.

Still from LaBute's The Wicker Man (2006). Nic channels Malus. 

LaBute’s The Wicker Man is still generically folk horror and follows Hardy’s film in a relatively straightforward way: Policeman Edward Malus sneaks onto a private island off the coast of Washington state after receiving a letter from his ex-fiancé, Willow. Apparently, her daughter Rowan is missing, and Willow can’t trust anyone other than Malus to track her down. As in Hardy’s version, it is eventually revealed that the missing girl is nothing but a ruse intended to lure a sacrificial victim to the island of their own freewill and then burn them alive—again, in the titular giant wicker man.

Still from LaBute's The Wicker Man (2006). Nicolas Cage tries on his bespoke wicker suit. 

The biggest problem with LaBute’s film is that it’s just not scary—the cardinal sin of any scary movie. In fact, bizarre and/or unnecessary additions to the story (such as Malus’ attempt to save a little girl who maybe doesn’t exist from a burning car at the beginning of the film before we know anything about the island, lots and lots of bees, and a preponderance of twins) and tired observations that Nicolas Cage is overacting have contributed to the film’s reputation as being unintentionally funny. But it’s not very funny, either (intentionally or otherwise). This is no Troll 2. Closer to the truth is that it’s just not well made, and the result is a lack of suspense and poor plotting.

Perhaps worse, however, is that LaBute’s Wicker Man is a remake that doesn’t seem to understand what made Hardy’s version work in the first place. Perhaps this can be forgiven. Again, the modern world is the product of the revolution and anxiety that Hardy’s Wicker Man seemed to be experiencing first hand; LaBute’s Wicker Man, however, exists on the other side of that revolution, in a world largely free of that particular anxiety (unless you’re from Utah), and, as such, Howie’s extreme reaction to a sexually unrestricted (at least, in any way that he understands) culture doesn’t fit and is instead replaced with Malus’s descent into a psychosis that is never fully explained.

One might be forgiven in thinking that this premise (possibly crazy guy going to an island full of possibly pagan possible kidnappers—many of whom are twins for some reason), without most of the weird sex stuff, is still promising, the stuff of great folk horror in embryo—LaBute certainly seemed to think so—but the 2006 Wicker Man is so poorly executed that weird sex stuff (more twins?) is probably the only thing that could have saved it.

Still from LaBute's The Wicker Man (2006). Before the Kardashians, we could barely keep up with these twin rascals. 

As mentioned, conventional wisdom insists that part of the failure of this movie is Nicolas Cage’s uncanny ability to overact in a way that never fails to get the attention of the internet’s best meme-smiths, and 2006 seems to be one of the times when dismissing Nicolas Cage as a joke reached critical mass. In particular, a deleted scene from the film that was released on home video as part of an alternate ending drew an enormous amount of attention. In it, Nicolas Cage reacts to bees—to which the Malus character is allergic—as they swarm all over his face, and his reaction is impassioned in the hyperbolic way that audiences have come to expect from the actor.

As is often the case, however, the conventional wisdom has it wrong here. While Nicolas Cage has been in more than his fair share of bad movies (and LaBute’s Wicker Man is definitely one of these), Nicolas Cage’s performances in these movies is rarely, if ever, the real problem. The real problem, as Lindsay Gibb notes in her landmark examination of the subject, National Treasure. Nicolas Cage is one of expectations: “When Cage goes ‘over the top,’ it’s not a mistake he makes while striving for realism. He thinks realism is overrated.”

Alfred Hitchcock, universally acknowledged as one of the all-time great film directors, helps us understand the problem with dismissing Nicolas Cage’s more exaggerated performances out-of-hand, as so many do. “Some films,” he told François Truffaut (another contender for the title of all-time great film director), “are slices of life; mine are slices of cake.” Hitchcock’s comment seems to remind us that realism need not be the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) purpose of most films. Mimetic realism has its place, but audiences aren’t necessarily looking for that. Whether we refer to them as escapism or not, most films are designed to remove us from real life. And that’s not a bad thing. Not everything has to comment on real life, and even if that is your bar for good art, realism is hardly the only way to speak to the human condition.

Cage’s performance in LaBute’s Wicker Man seems to be a prime example of an actor reaching beyond realism and into the surreal. His inflated performance strains our sense of credulity. For some people, this challenges and overcomes their ability to suspend disbelief, therefore making him an easy target for accusations of overacting, but it’s not overacting, it’s a deliberate maneuver designed to give you the exact experience that some members of the audience claim they don’t want: a slice of cake. He has delivered the audience from the mundane, humdrum routine of real life and given them something extraordinary in the most literal sense: something beyond the usual; something noteworthy; something exceptional. Which should be ideal for folk horror—a performance that destabilizes our commitment to the ordinary pace of modern life.

If you’ll recall, while folk horror often gets pigeonholed as horror that takes place in the country, it’s important to remember that it is the isolation that is produced by the setting that creates that horror, the isolation from modern civilization and modern culture. And Nicolas Cage’s performance is, by design, isolating. But LaBute’s Wicker Man fails as folk horror because the isolation implied by Nicolas Cage’s bonkers performance has less to do with the setting and more to do with his aforementioned growing psychosis—psychosis that is present before the audience knows anything about the folk horror-typical rural island setting.

It also fails as a scary movie in general­—setting aside the idea of folk horror—not because of Nicolas Cage’s bonkers performance but simply because LaBute fails to generate suspense and surprise in any meaningful way. And LaBute’s failure in The Wicker Man, interestingly, creates the circumstances in which Nicolas Cage’s surreal performance shines in only the worst light. If you consider movies like Moonstruck (a kind of romantic comedy), or Matchstick Men (a kind of heist film), Cage’s performances are not unlike what we see in LaBute’s Wicker Man: they are built on sudden, exaggerated movements and line deliveries that vacillate wildly between a laconic drawl and unhinged, full throated yelling. But these films succeed.

This is because Cage’s performances never sink movies, they always enhance them, but like any collaborative effort, movies only tend to be as good as the average of the capabilities of everyone involved. When Cage is the only thing worth paying attention to in a film, his outsized acting can easily overwhelm the other elements and tend to feel like unproductive, undirected caricature rather than effective methodology with a specific purpose in mind. On some level, it’s possible to reduce LaBute’s Wicker Man to Nicolas Cage dressing up as a bear and sucker-punching a woman in the face, but it’s almost impossible to ignore that the film sinks in spite of Cage’s performance, not because of it.

Either way, however, we’re stuck with a stinker, and the question still stands: can The Wicker Man be updated for modern audiences successfully? Is it possible to remove or substantially alter a film’s primary reason for being in order to update it for the benefit of an uninitiated audience and still walk away with a film worth watching?

While not explicitly a remake of any version of The Wicker Man, Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) manages to produce a modern version of the 1973 folk horror classic without reproducing the 2006 quasi-folk horror miscarriage.

And it’s terrifying.

Ari Aster’s Midsommar is the follow-up to his 2018 film Hereditary, a claustrophobic nightmare that is easily one of the best horror films of the decade (and likely of all time).

And, in a lot of ways, Hereditary looks the part: decades of horror films have conditioned us to expect horror films to conform to a certain set of conventions—dark, spooky settings; shocking scenes of violence or gore; mysterious phenomenon; etc. Hereditary does all of these things and it does all of these things about as well as they can be done.

So, when Midsommar arrived in 2019, it felt like a film made by a director who has accepted a challenge: is it possible to make a horror film that consciously jettisons most of these conventions that have defined horror basically since the inception of the genre? And Midsommar rises to the occasion. To be sure, the film still hinges on the slow-burn of sinister mysteries, there are scenes in which you will still find the tried-and-true moments of violence that we’ve seen in other films, and there are moments when literal darkness overwhelms everything else, but these gestures toward genre are all radically recontextualized in a setting that seems to embody the antithesis of horror. The Land of the Midnight Sun, which immediately forecloses on any easy way out for Aster—the night and its darkness never really comes—so he has been stripped of the archetypal fear of the dark that so many other horror films have been able to exploit as a kind of shorthand for suspense, danger, and terror.  

And even though it’s so bright, it is scary.

When I think about the scariness of Midsommar I am reminded of another time I was at the Urban Lounge. As I mentioned before, the Urban Lounge is fine but shabby—and “shabby” probably does it a lot of favors, to be honest. I think I was there to see the Silver Jews, and I needed to use the restroom before the show began (obviously poor planning on my part). I went back to the men’s restroom and immediately noticed that there was no door on the stall. This was already going to be a problem, but then I looked into the stall. What I saw there changed me. It changed me, and I walked out of the restroom, out of the Urban Lounge, down the street to a 7-11, and used their bathroom instead.

In other words, some scariness defies our ability to really face it—especially when we can see it clearly.

But, in the case of Midsommar, I’ll keep trying, at least.

The film begins in a (literally) darkly and gloomily rendered United States, which complements a (figuratively) dark and tragic murder-suicide. For anyone who comes to Midsommar from Hereditary, the dread that Aster summons from the audience as Dani, a psychology student, contemplates the loss of her parents and sister is unwelcomely familiar. Aster does this type of dread better than just about any other filmmaker. But here, in a way, it’s a kind of red herring: while this somber introduction recalls the mood and tone and darkness of Hereditary (in which a family also has to manage tragic, overwhelming loss), unlike that film, Dani almost immediately receives an opportunity to escape the gloom: Pelle, a Swedish friend, invites Dani, her boyfriend (Christian), and his friends to a bright, dazzling, drug-fueled midsummer celebration in Hårga, a small Swedish town. And this, of course, is where the real horror—the folk horror—of Midsommar begins.

The parallels between Midsommar and The Wicker Man are already obvious to anyone paying attention. The retreat from modern civilization to the disconnected rural is difficult to ignore, and so we are primed to expect some form of horrific isolation. In Hardy’s Wicker Man, this isolation stems from Howie’s commitment to Christianity and his confrontation with an ancient culture whose values are fundamentally incompatible with his experience of Christianity—particularly the emphasis on sex and fertility and ritualized murder. LaBute’s Wicker Man, however, misfires, and the isolation is not a product of the setting so much as it is Malus’ preexisting psychosis. Aster’s Midsommar brilliantly conceives of a way for Dani’s troubled relationship with her boyfriend Christian to take the place of Howie’s Christianity, enabling the isolation that she experiences as a result of her new geographic and cultural setting to mirror Howie’s, but in a way that is updated for the modern world. The fact of sex isn’t the problem anymore, so much as the manners of sex.

Dani and Christian’s relationship is fraught from the beginning. He is already thinking about breaking up with her when she learns that her sister has murdered her parents and died by suicide, and he remains with her out of a sense of obligation more than any real feeling. They carry this baggage with them to Sweden, and the drama of Midsommar hinges upon how they fail to manage this personal crisis in the isolation produced by the conventions of the folk horror setting. Dani isn’t appalled by Pelle and his people’s lack of Christian values; she’s appalled by Christian’s susceptibility as Maya, one of the villagers, begins to seduce him (with the help of the village).

Howie, from Hardy’s Wicker Man, would have been horrified by Dani’s relationship with Christian because they aren’t married. Likewise, Howie would have been horrified by Christian’s sexual relationship with Maya because it is immoral; however, in 2019, Dani and the audience of Midsommar are horrified by Christian’s relationship with Maya because of Christian’s infidelity—a betrayal—and especially horrified because Maya has drugged Christian, eliminating the possibility of a consensual sexual relationship. Again, the horror isn’t based on a commitment to Christian virtue but a more modern-feeling commitment to ethics. Either way, this is folk horror at its best: the protagonist (as proxy for the audience) has been completely isolated from the safety of modern culture and made completely vulnerable to a perceived barbarism from an ancient past.

But this barbarism is not limited to sexual transgression (or drug-use or senicide—other topics that allow the film to unsettle the audience). The most crucially unsettling transgression of civilized behavior in Midsommar is what made it one of my favorite films of 2019: it manages to make the viewer feel complicit in its final acts of petty betrayal and brutal murder.

By the end of the movie, I want Christian to die—whether or not drugs have influenced his behavior—and I am happy when he does. And it’s not pretty: screaming, sewn into the carcass of a bear (remember Nicolas Cage’s bear costume?), and burned alive (although not in a giant wicker man) is not my preferred way to bow out. But learning that I could happily wish that on someone else is scarier than just about anything the killer in Friday the 13th can pull off with a chainsaw or whatever.

Still from Aster's Midsommar (2019). We're fresh out of wicker men, but could I interest you in a great big yellow triangle? 

Much has been made about how Friday the 13th (and other films like it) depicts murder from the perspective of the murderer, but when I watch Friday the 13th, or Halloween, or almost any other horror movie, I almost always know who the bad guy is—he’s the guy on the screen doing bad things to (good?) people. But, when Dani intentionally condemns Christian to death in the finale of Midsommar and I watch that brilliant smile break across her face (Florence Pugh is truly amazing in that moment), it’s my smile, too, and now I’m the bad guy. And this, ultimately, is what elevates Midsommar above either Wicker Man (not to mention most other horror movies).

Still from Aster's Midsommar (2019). I'm in love with Daisy Buchanon, too, as long as we're on the subject of fictional women that I've fallen for despite all of the red flags. 

Hardy wasn’t able to make me sympathize with Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. I don’t really like Howie, but I don’t want him to die, and Lord Summerisle is a bad guy, for sure, even if he can sing and dance like a damn ballerina.

LaBute and his twins can barely keep me interested in his movie at all, let alone inspire me to root for all of those weird ladies, and while leaving all of the heavy lifting to Nicolas Cage’s genius is enough to motivate the weak-minded to want to burn Malus alive, I’d rather just pretend I’ve never seen it (I’m certainly not proud that I own it).

Aster’s Midsommar, though, elevates folk horror to a new place: assimilation. Dani’s isolation from modern culture in disconnected Hårga eventually becomes so complete that her only way forward is to embrace a new identity defined by her new community. Of course, by this point, her family is gone and her boyfriend has betrayed her, so modern culture doesn’t have a lot left to offer beyond a return to the Hereditary-esque dread of the United States. Pelle’s village, however, has given her free drugs and crowned her its May Queen and empowered her to murder people she doesn’t like. Assimilating—even if it means condoning ritualized murder—doesn’t really feel like a hard decision.

And that, for me, is good horror. The horror of (involuntary?) sympathy with evil.

Of course, for most of us, when we’re being honest with ourselves, this feels less like a revelation than a confirmation. I’ve always suspected that I had it in me to really be awful. For instance, one time, I trapped my two-year-old nephew under a laundry basket and put some heavy books on top of it and then laughed at him while he cried. I was 28.

Midsommar makes me think about my capacity for malice and comes across, then, as a handshake, and a pat on the back, and a knowing wink. Welcome home, it says—to this place where the murderers live. Welcome home—to this place where you’re allowed to give in to your worst instincts. Welcome home—to this place where deliberate, wanton cruelty is utterly permissible.

Welcome—to the October Movie Club.

(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)