We were so inspired by Kier-La Janisse’s documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that we decided to dive into some of the best films her 3+ hour documentary couldn’t spend much time on. In particular, we wanted to highlight some of the greatest folk horror films not in the English language.
5. Viy (Russia) (1967)
Drunken seminarians, farmhouses, witches – Viy sets you up from its opening moments for a classic folk tale. Three seminarians turned out for break get lost in the woods. They ask an old lady to let them sleep in her barn for the night. She’s not an ordinary old lady.
Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov’s silly, spooky yarn tells of class struggle and superstition. Poor Khoma, our bumbling, drunk hero, is screwed no matter what he does. State/religious authority will beat him, the wealthy will beat him, or supernatural evil will harm him in ways he can’t quite picture.
Even though there’s a clear element of silliness in this film, the core image of a man in over his head gives this Russian folk horror a punch.
4. November (Poland) (2017)
Imagine a world in which Bergman’s Seventh Seal made it with Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and you kinda get a sense of Rainer Sarnet’s November.
At the center of the film lies the unrequited love of two peasants. Liina (Rea Lest) is hopelessly in love with Hans (Jörgen Liik). Hans has the hots for the daughter of the local German baron. Lina and Hans each try to capture the attention of their beloved while communing with ghosts, employing the services of kratts and witches, managing lycanthropy, evading the plague, circumventing arranged marriages, and avoiding starvation during the impending long winter.
The movie is a mishmash of comedy, romance, fantasy, political theory, and philosophy all shot in exquisite black and white. Somehow it comes together, like the kratts, in a way that seems fresh, bizarre, and interesting.
3. Hagazussa (Germany) (2017)
Making a remarkably assured feature debut as director, Lukas Feigelfeld mesmerizes with his German Gothic poetry, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse.
Settled somewhere in the 15th Century Alps, the film shadows lonely, ostracized women struggling against a period where plague, paranoia and superstition reigned.
It would be easy to mistake the story Feigelfeld (who also writes) develops as a take on horror’s common “is she crazy or is there malevolence afoot?” theme. But the filmmaker’s hallucinatory tone and Aleksandra Cwen’s grounded performance allow Hagazussa to straddle that line and perhaps introduce a third option—maybe both are true.
The film lends itself to a reading more lyrical than literal. Feigelfeld’s influences from Murnau to Lynch show themselves in his deliberate pacing and the sheer beauty of his delusional segments. He’s captured this moment in time, this draining and ugly paranoia that caused women such misery, with imagery that is perplexingly beautiful.
2. The Wailing (South Korea) (2016)
“Why are you troubled?” Jesus asked, “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
Though the true meaning of this quote won’t take hold until the final act, it presents many questions. Is this film supernatural? Demonic? Or, given the corporeal nature of the quote, is it rooted in the human flesh?
That’s what makes the quote so perfect. Writer/director Hong-jin Na meshes everything together in this bucolic horror where superstition and religion blend. The film echoes with misery, as the title suggests. The filmmaker throws every grisly thing at you – zombies, pustules, demonic possession, police procedural, multiple homicides – and yet keeps it all slippery with overt comedy.
1. Lamb (Iceland) (2021)
Among the many remarkable elements buoying the horror fable Lamb is filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson’s ability to tell a complete and riveting tale without a single word of exposition. Rather than devoting dialog to explaining to us what it is we are seeing, Jóhannsson relies on impressive visual storytelling instincts.
His cast of three – well, four, I guess — sells the fairy tale. A childless couple working a sheep farm in Iceland find an unusual newborn lamb and take her in as their own child. As is always the way in old school fables, though, there is much magical happiness but a dire recompense soon to come. It is an absolutely gorgeous, entirely unusual and expertly crafted gem of a film. You should see it.