Jhe village in Gloucestershire where our heroine (Jessie Buckley) arrives towards the start of Men is way too good to be harmless: you just know that something rotten must be at the heart of it, inches away from all that lush greenery. Alex Garland’s creepy, daffy and already somewhat underrated film – now available to stream on Amazon – may probe male toxicity and female endangerment with a distinctly #MeToo-era lens, but it’s also rooted in a solid, shuddering tradition of British folk horror, where the myths and lore of the land become their own kind of menace.
They are embodied in the shifting form of Rory Kinnear, playing the multiple men of this village, but also a single, evil spirit of masculinity. Rifting obliquely at the myth of the green man, Garland’s storyline paints gender-based violence as something ancient and ritualized at the heart of our culture, a curse to be broken one way or another. This makes for a pleasingly postmodern, self-aware entry into the annals of popular horror cinema, a genre in which earthly violence and sexuality can be presented in a more exploitative way.
It’s certainly a far cry from the visceral clash of the three films generally considered the cornerstones of British popular horror: The wicker man (multiple platforms), of course, with its disturbing investigation into a missing person that turns into a pagan springtime panic on a remote island in the Hebrides. The lore that drives Robin Hardy’s film – from its lore to its grim imagery to its haunting folk songs – was largely self-invented, however, and now so heavily copied that it began to feel culturally ingrained long after 1973. .
by Michael Reeves Witch Seeker General (1968; multiple platforms) has a bit more of a historical basis, being loosely based on the 17th century exploits of real witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (with a rather un-English horror villain flair by Vincent Price). As brutal and unnerving as ever, it centers on a man who falsely claims to murder women as part of his duty, not personal misogyny – there’s a flicker of progressive consciousness here beneath the macabre spectacle. (Too bad Reeves, who died at the age of 25 the year after his release, never matured with the genre.) The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971; multiple platforms), meanwhile, really honed the genre’s sense of evil planted in the literal dirt of the countryside. His story of demonic possession of a village is essentially silly; what sticks is the way the film renders its rustic landscape charged and alien.
Other B-movies from this era helped solidify the rules of popular horror without quite achieving the same status. Banshee Cry (1970; Amazon) was essentially a Witch Seeker General knockoff, starring Price as another deranged witch hunter, and rather falsely introducing Edgar Allan Poe into the mix; it is a delightfully sinister curiosity. The 1967 Hammer Horror Quatermasse and the pit (BFI Player), on the other hand, is most interesting for its innovative fusion of folk horror with alien sci-fi.
More recently, Ben Wheatley has been described as the genre’s steward in the 21st century, before his more Hollywood exploits. kill list (2011; free on All 4) represents a tight and nasty update, blending the dark, worst-nightmare scenario of a soldier with PTSD with occult complexities, while A field in England (2013; multi-platform) delved more indulgently into the more trippy medieval ends of the genre. It’s more of an acquired taste, and not scary at all, but folksy it certainly is.
Finally, Corin Hardy’s 2015 Cooler The Saint (multiple platforms) proves 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 in streaming and DVD
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