Inspired by the British folklore they’ve explored in two features, Hex and The Droving, director George Popov and writer Jonathan Russell turn away from fiction, delivering spectral dread in truer tales.
Their second documentary in less than a year, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea swims dark waters alongside ghost ships and sea monsters.
Popov’s voiceover establishes a Twilight Zone quality: Truth and lies do not relate in such a simple equation when the line between fact and fiction is enshrouded in mist and shadow. Beyond that threshold is a place that can change our perspective on everything we think we know. I call this place the Sideworld.
Earlier this year, Popov and Russell led us into this mist and shadow with the first installment of their doc series, Haunted Forests of England. Their second effort opens with more of their characteristically haunting cinematography.
The film breaks into four chapters: Ghost Ships, Sea Monsters, Spectral Sailors and Mermaids. Each chapter consists of a number of tails, always highlighting one in particular with some primary or secondary source material to mine.
Though the Flying Dutchman has its fame, the majority of the stories spilled on these shores are little known legends with historical documents for basis. The Wildman of Orford and other tales offer fascinating historical curiosities, while outright ghost stories delight in their sad, scary way.
Popov’s voiceover remains somber throughout, avoiding the campfire fright style of storytelling and instead rendering his tales with reverence. In fact, Popov and Russell’s sympathetic point of view continually asks whether the monsters in these tales are not actually the humans.
Brisk, informative, creepy fun, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea uncovers welcome treasures of haunted folklore.
We’re thrilled to welcome filmmaker George Popov back to Fright Club. His Sideworld docuseries explores different supernatural whatnot the world over, beginning with the Haunted Forests of England. So, we thought we’d comb through our favorite haunted forests together. Here’s what we came up with!
5. The Hallow (2015)
Visual showman Corin Hardy has a bit of trickery up his sleeve. His directorial debut The Hallow, for all its superficiality and its recycled horror tropes, offers a tightly wound bit of terror in the ancient Irish wood.
Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare Hitchens (Bojana Novakovic) move, infant Finn in tow, from London to the isolated woods of Ireland so Adam can study a tract of forest the government hopes to sell off to privatization. But the woods don’t take kindly to the encroachment and the interloper Hitchens will pay dearly.
Hardy has a real knack for visual storytelling. His inky forests are both suffocating and isolating, with a darkness that seeps into every space. He’s created an atmosphere of malevolence, but the film does not rely on atmosphere alone.
Though all the cliché elements are there – a young couple relocates to an isolated wood to be warned off by angry locals with tales of boogeymen – the curve balls Hardy throws will keep you unnerved and guessing.
4. Without Name (2016)
Haunting and hallucinatory, this Irish gem develops a menacing presence you cannot shake. Director Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) leads surveyor Eric (AlanMcKenna) into the Irish woods with no real hope of finding his way back.
Like The Hallow, this film braids ecological horror with the supernatural, all of it rooted in Irish folklore. The’s an understanding that not everything was pushed out once Catholicism took over, the two sides just kept their distance. But now that it’s big companies making the decisions, a lack of reverence in the presence of the past is more than one man can survive.
3. Antichrist (2009)
A meditation on grief and sexual politics, it’s not until Antichrist moves into its second act that you know the kind of film Lars von Trier has actually made. It’s a cabin in the woods horror show, and one of the very best.
Grief becomes something supernatural, a hellish nightmare perfectly suited to the type of woods Shakespeare wrote of. The forest is a lurking, magical place where danger and enchantment frolic.
In this case, they frolic perhaps too close to the tool shed.
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.
One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon primal fears.
1. The Witch (2015)
Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.
Every opportunity writer/director Roger Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.
You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.
Jonathan Russell and George Popov have been exploring England’s haunted history for a number of years now. For their first feature collaboration, 2017’s Hex, the co-writers/co-directors took us into the woods for a spell.
In 2020 the pair co-wrote – this time with Popov flying solo behind the camera – a modern exploration of folk horror with The Droving. Once again, the two unveiled a spooky history where primitive behavior meets supernatural forces deep in England’s woods.
The filmmakers’ latest suggests a serious preoccupation at this point. Their documentary Sideworld: The Haunted Forests of England walks us through some of the spectral history that likely influenced their earlier dramatic efforts.
Where Kier-La Janisse’s recent doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitcheddove into dramatic recreations of folk horror, Popov and Russell dig into the myths that inspired the fiction.
Russell writes, Popov directs and lends vocal talents to the fairly brief excursion into local folklore surrounding three different forests: Epping Forest, Cannock Chase and Wistman’s Wood. Their stories tell of pig beasts and howling dogs, weeping children and witches, tragic lovers and highwaymen.
They don’t stop with musty legend, though. Links to contemporary crime help to bridge the modern with the ancient in a way that sheds light into how tales of hauntings originate.
Though Popov narrates most of the film, he’s joined on occasion by Suzie Frances Garton and William Poulter. The film would have benefitted from more vocal variety, particularly since the filmmakers avoid any kind of talking-head footage. A little commentary from folklorists or experts would also have helped the film deliver a bit more relevance.
You can’t fault the spell Sideworld casts. Richard Suckling, who did such a beautiful job as DP for The Droving, again develops an atmosphere of beauty and dread. His cinematography mesmerizes from the opening moment. Paired with Matthew Laming’s haunting, whispering whistle of a score, the forests of Popov’s exploration easily convince of spectral menace.
It’s been almost exactly one year since Martin’s little
sister Meg disappeared. The Droving festival is upon us again, and
Martin’s come back to town to do his own investigating.
In filmmaker George Popov’s sophomore effort, following his underseen 2017 gem Hex, the co-writer/director once again weaves elements of a psychological thriller with supernatural themes to create an effectively off- kilter sensibility.
Martin (Daniel Oldroyd, also of Hex) isn’t exactly what he appears to be. His own arc, much of it grounded in slowly-revealed backstory, is what drives the film.
Martin’s internal journey is more deceptively complicated than expected. It creates an underlying unease that nicely offsets Droving’s almost poetic visuals. Though Oldroyd understated grace holds all the film’s unusual elements together, he can’t quite convince when the moment comes to unveil Martin’s most dramatic levels of psychic damage.
The clues Martin pieces together feel too easily sleuthed. The
Droving would have benefitted from some narrative complications, some
untidiness. Still, the mystery itself—built on a handful of tense set pieces
that deliver menace and weirdness in equal measure—is a good one.
Popov’s instinct for visual storytelling is again the most compelling argument for the film. Hex, made on next to nothing, delivered a spooky, medieval atmosphere thanks in large part to framing and cinematography.
For Droving, Popov works again with cinematographer Harry Young, whose shots are often beautifully lit, giving them a painterly quality. From early, eerily quiet pre-festival shots of Martin walking the streets of town to the more frenetic, dizzying festival footage, Popov sets a creepy stage for his thriller.
We’re afraid of the woods. We likely always have been—the Brothers Grimm may have collected wooded tales of witches, elves and wolves both big and bad during the 1800s, but those stories had been passed down for generations.
Those who told the old fairy tales saw the forest as a mysterious place of wonder, temptation, confusion and danger.
Writing/directing team George Popov and Jonathan Russell follow that same bumpy trail into the woods with their first feature, Hex.
Made on little more than a thousand dollars, Hex proves the duo to be a competent set of craftsmen and effective storytellers.
Two soldiers separated from their companies in the 17th century during England’s Civil War chase each other into a deep forest. The rebel Thomas (William Young) is young, soft and open to the dark poetry and doom of witchcraft. He’s not long in the woods before he sees his true enemy is not the countryman behind him with his sword drawn.
Richard (Daniel Oldroyd) fights for King and Country, strident and single-minded, logic keeps him from believing until he has little choice.
Hex draws quick comparisons to Ben Wheatley’s 2013 experiment A Field in England, but where that film felt fanciful and indulgent (though entertaining), Hex feels a bit more like a stage play taken to the woods.
The film is slow-moving, sometimes frustratingly so. Though Popov and Russell’s technical skills are solid, their instincts for pacing and tension-building are less honed. The slight plot relies immensely on an atmosphere of supernatural dread for its success, but it’s here that the filmmakers have some trouble.
The flaw is hardly insurmountable. Even with sometimes obvious budget restrictions, the film looks good. Popov and Russell let light from a campfire spark the imagination, edging frames with shadowy dangers.
Hex sounds great, too, working the nerves with the effective noise of blades unsheathed or the diabolical tinker of a nearby brook, all enriched with Nino Russell’s appropriately bewitching score.
There is more happening here than you realize, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that you only recognize the film’s purpose when they are ready for you to do so. The result is a satisfying tale with more power than just magic.