clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A wave of folk horror movies hits Shudder, inspired by an epic new documentary

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a three-hour trip through folk horror history

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A woman in a flower crown screams while two monstrous humanoids crouch behind her in Viy
Viy (1967)
Image: Severin Films

Shudder, the horror-movie streaming service, is kicking off the new year with some ancient traditions thanks to a new folk-horror collection. The programming includes 46 movies highlighted in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a fantastic and comprehensive new documentary on the the folk-horror subgenre.

Woodlands Dark is a three-hour long exploration of the history of folk horror on film. The six-part film is directed by Kier-La Janisse and includes clips from what feels like nearly 100 films, all interspersed with commentary from writers, enthusiasts, filmmakers, academics, and experts. The documentary starts out by explaining the origins of folk horror films, particularly in England, with things like back-to-the-land movements, which recalled England’s pagan history, as well as the country’s unique heritage of witchcraft and wiccans as an opposing force to the often cruel and all-consuming state church.

After these early, English-focused segments, the film shifts perspective to the rest of the world. It explores American folk horror traditions that deal with the country’s dark history with Native Americans (often under the dark cloud of colonials atrocity) and slavery, as well as the unique terror of open spaces and rural land. Finally, Woodlands Dark offers views of folk horror throughout the world including places like Russia, Czechoslovakia, Japan, and many other countries.

While watching the entire lengthy film is an entertaining way to spend an afternoon, it’s probably not the best way to take in Woodlands Dark. Instead, the documentary is best approached by breaking it down and watching it one part at a time, then watching that segments’ most important movies once you’re done with it.

Of course, finding time for all 45 movies is a pretty tall order. So here are six folk horror movies currently on Shudder that should give you a good idea of the folk horror genre and help you enjoy the documentary a little more.

The Wicker Man (England, 1973)

One of the quintessential English folk horror movies, The Wicker Man follows a god-fearing detective as he heads to a remote British island, where a charismatic man — played by a young Christopher Lee — leads a cult-like village that aims to return to the pagan roots of English culture. If you’ve never seen this classic, this is a great context in which to finally settle down to behold it.

Witchfinder General (England, 1968)

Witches are a critical part of folk horror and from the very beginning they’ve always been more complicated than good or evil and real or fake. Witchfinder General takes place at the height of the medieval witchcraft scare in England and follows Vincent Price as an evil witch hunter who goes from town to town stoking up fears of magic, only to take over the towns for his own horrible benefit.

Viy (Soviet Union, 1967)

Viy follows a young Russian seminary student in the 19th century who is tasked with staying three nights in a crypt to bless a woman’s soul as it ascends to heaven. However, during the first night, the woman comes alive and tries to destroy his faith, first by seducing him, then by summoning an army of demons. Viy was the USSR’s first horror film, and draws in similar elements from the church-versus-tradition films of England, but with a distinctly different tone. It’s creepy, but also often outright silly with a tone that has helped the movie age into a brilliant and entertaining mix of horror, camp, and general mayhem.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (United States, 1974)

One fascinating argument that Woodlands Dark makes is that Texas Chainsaw Massacre deserves a spot in the conversation about folk-horror films. Set in the dusty and desolate plains of small-town Texas, this horror classic follows a group of teenage friends as they fall victim to the chainsaw-wielding man/monster Leatherface. Most of America’s folk traditions don’t go back as far as their European counterparts, but the country is full of the kind of open, secluded, and distinctly un-modern towns that contemporary folk horror stories thrive on.

Noroi: The Curse (Japan, 2005)

Noroi is a found-footage horror movie about a Japanese filmmaker investigating supernatural occurrences all over the country. As he continues his research, he realizes that an entire old village has been flooded to create a new dam, thus disrupting an ancient folk ritual that was keeping a demon at bay. This idea of commerce, technology, and big business upsetting the folk traditions — rather than the 20th century idea of the church as the disturbing force — is something that can be found in modern folk horror films around the world, but is particularly clear in Noroi.

La Llorona (Guatamala, 2020)

Not to be confused with the mediocre-at-best Conjuring-universe movie, The Curse of La Llorona, this Guatemalan film is one of the most haunting and beautiful horror movies released in the last several years. The film follows a lightly fictionalized version of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, under whose leadership the Guatemalan army perpetrated a mass genocide of the county’s native population — known as the Silent Genocide. In the film the dictator is put on trial late in his life, but after he is unjustly ruled innocent, the spirits of the Kaqchikel people he helped kill begin to haunt his home.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon