A History Of Horror
January 31, 2022 8:40 PM   Subscribe

A History of Horror is a three-part BBC documentary series by Mark Gatiss about horror in film. Frankenstein Goes To Hollywood, Home Counties Horror, The American Scream. Covering from Phantom Of The Opera through Halloween. Each episode is just about an hour. Previously, long ago.
posted by hippybear (25 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
What a coincidence, I just watched this again last weekend. It's good, although I wish it was less about Mark Gatiss (he makes no attempt to say it's not highly personal, it's just that sometimes it feels like it's more about him getting the BBC to pay for him to travel around and meet his idols and chat with them than it is an attempt at a serious documentary. Still, very worth watching.)

On a similar note, I just recently watched Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a super-long and super-detailed documentary on folk horror, and it's pretty great. I watched all three and a half hours in one sitting, and was left wanting more. It maybe goes a little far in suggesting that more films than you would think are folk horror, but still. Indispensable. And as I understand it, parts of it grew out of the second episode of the Gatiss miniseries.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:36 PM on January 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have been catching up on folk horror, which made me want to hunt up the middle piece here. I have some issues with Gatiss; his MR James documentary was never wrong exactly, but it sometimes presented Gatiss’ suppositions as established truth, so I’m expecting the same here. Which means it should be a decent, surface-level introduction. Now I just need to find 3 hours, and another 3.5 for the documentary JZ mentioned.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:35 AM on February 1, 2022

he makes no attempt to say it's not highly personal...

He makes it fairly clear in the first episode that the series is his own personal take on horror films. And that’s perfectly fine, frankly. “Horror” tends to be a personal thing, and it’s always interesting to see/hear one individual’s take on the subject.

I have a little quibble with the first episode, though, in that he skips any mention of one of the more seminal horror films of the early 30s, that beingKing Kong. It kind of perplexes me how he failed to make any mention of it, especially when he delves a bit into RKO’s horror films of the 1940s, as if there was no precedent at the studio.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on February 1, 2022

Home Counties Horror basically invented the idea of folk horror as a recognizable subgenre and created the idea of the Unholy Trinity, the three foundational films of folk horror: Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan's Claw, and The Wicker Man.
posted by maxsparber at 8:32 AM on February 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

maxsparber: British folk horror, at least. I'm a bit shocked that neither Gatiss' miniseries nor Woodlands Dark finds it worthwhile to mention stuff like Der Golem or the 1967 Viy.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:38 PM on February 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Woodlands Dark absolutely mentions Viy. It's about two and a half hours in, during the (fairly substantial) section on international films. It's also included in the Severin films box set based around the doc.

The box set has a cut chapter on Brazilian folk horror, which was omitted largely because of the disaster that destroyed the national film archive there, making many of the films discussed effectively lost forever.

Some kind person compiled a list of the films shown/discussed in the documentary here on Letterboxd.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:10 PM on February 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

DirtyOldTown: Huh, I must have missed that. I did notice they covered Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), which is of course also a Viy adaptation, but a much looser one. Anyway, the exclusion of Der Golem seems a bit glaring to me, it's a really early example.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:40 PM on February 1, 2022

Janisse has said in interviews that the two most common comments she gets is "Why is it so long?" and "Why didn't you include ________?" Given that she did include 235 movies and shows, I feel like she did pretty well.

The strong focus in the last third on expanding our understanding of folk horror to include traditions from around the world was maybe my favorite section. So many cool films I'd never heard about before!
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:46 PM on February 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yeah, fair enough. I just feel like there's so much focus on the British 60s/70s stuff generally that very early non-British examples should get a thorough consideration.

Still, folk horror is slippery as a concept. I think what they say in Woodlands Dark about "it's a mode, not a genre" is helpful, although they don't totally respect that themselves, I think they actually stretch the term a bit more than they maybe should, including almost everything that has folklore elements. I mean, you could argue that every vampire tale ever is "folk horror" because the origin of vampires is in Slavic folklore, but that's hardly helpful either...
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2022

Not to mention that all horror movies featuring ghosts, demons, or similar are folklore-based originally, so that's definition isn't workable at all.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:35 PM on February 1, 2022

Halloween 3 is folk horror, sorry.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:37 PM on February 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

Pope Guilty: It kind of is! Even II a little bit!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:50 PM on February 1, 2022

My current working definition of folk horror is:

1. The setting is rural or wasteland, with a focus on landscape
2. There is a tension between ancient and modern
3. There is the threat of the supernatural

Not convinced it’s quite right, though
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:41 PM on February 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I recall seeing this series shortly after it is release (2012 probably) and yeah I think the second episode, Home Counties Horror, was likely the strongest part of this series or at least it for me the part that made the most impression. While it didn't create the term Folk Horror it definitely popularised it and I recall at the time that it effectively expressed something for which I might not have had words. My only complaint is the lack of any discussion of Continental European horror.

My current working definition of folk horror is

I think for me the key components are an overwhelming landscape, a troubled memory of a place and how human beings succeed or fail to reconcile these things in terms of shared realities. So maybe something along the lines of - the effects of an overwhelming landscape or geography on the humans living there in the past and present (future is never a consideration), the effects of the unresolved memory of the place on the humans living there and the conflict between humans (& their ideas) with a differing set of cultural constructs interacting with humans (& their attempts to reconcile the memories of a place) of the remote overwhelming landscape.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:15 AM on February 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Ashwagandha: I think there's some talk of Italian horror, at least? But as a fan of that particular subgenre (?) myself, I feel like there could be a lot more.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:53 AM on February 2, 2022

I think for me the key components are an overwhelming landscape, a troubled memory...

That's pretty good, too, but I think it lets in some things (e.g. Cannibal Holocaust and The Valley Obscured by Clouds) while also maybe exiling The Witchfinder General.

In the last few days, I watched A Dark Song, about a woman who hires a magician to lead her through a grueling ritual in an isolated country house, and I feel like it gets really close, but stops short because, while there are some spectacular landscape shots, the action is too much inside the house. The landscape has to threaten to be a character. Simialrly, I am not sure Ravenous or Bone Tomahawk count, despite all the landscape, because there aren't really "societies in conflict."

My thoughts are partly spurred by the Folk Horror sequence of The Evolution of Horror (FPP here) Where I think they make some bad calls, but I am having trouble saying why.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:22 AM on February 2, 2022

Evolution of Horror seems to view dangerous hillbillies as automatically folk horror, which, uh... I am not sure I vibe with, but I haven't actually listened to those episodes yet, and Mike Muncer is terrific, so I will hear him out. I cannot even guess his logic for including Green Room and Get Out.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:24 PM on February 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yeah, he uses an extremely expansive definition of folk horror, and I think forgets the folkloric elements that define them. I would make the case that America has very little folkloric horror, with the notable exception of Robert Eggers and a few other examples. It's not merely about a small community that has grown strange and deformed and dangerous to outsiders, its also about the pagan past finding its way back to the present.
posted by maxsparber at 7:39 PM on February 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Speaking of American folk horror, I think good old William S. Burroughs sums it up pretty well in this quote:
“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians... the evil was there... waiting.”
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:59 PM on February 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

And I don't think "dangerous hillbillies" is necessarily folk horror in all cases, but I do think Texas Chain Saw Massacre specifically has a certain folk horror je ne sais quoi. It's not just the murderous cannibals, that whole place is just bad.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:01 AM on February 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

In North America, it's not so much pagan, as it is in Europe, but primordial I think. Like in Lovecraft, something has percolateed up from the depths of time and taints the environment and anyone who comes in contact (as in Blood on Satan's Claw).
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:03 AM on February 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

I would make the case that America has very little folkloric horror,

I think this is not true. There is quite a bit of US-specific folklore, but, for whatever reason, much of it has not reached the screen. The rich veins of Appalachian folk lore and folk magic, the Pennsylvania Dutch folk magic, pretty much endless cryptids, the witch traditions of New England, the blended folk and religious traditions of enslaved people from many countries... there are certainly enough novels and podcasts mining this terrain, but not so much movies.

Candidates for US Folk Horror could include:
The Blair Witch Project
Skeleton Key
The Endless
The Witch
The Witch
The Village

I need to revisit Nomads, a 1986 Pierce Brosnan film that is mostly set in LA but focuses (as I recall) on the empty wastelands parts of the city.

I don't think Texas Chainsaw Massacre really counts because the family isn't really a society and there isn't a whiff of the supernatural (which I think is important). It's rural horror, but not folk horror.

If Candyman wasn't set in a city, it would count, I think.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:28 AM on February 3, 2022

I think there's also a case for season 1 of True Detective, but I can't think of another US television show that's solidly folk horror.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:15 AM on February 3, 2022

There's not a lot it is true but:

Appalachian folk lore and folk magic,
The Legend of Hillbilly John

Pennsylvania Dutch folk magic
Apprentice to Murder
or more of a stretch Deadly Blessing

religious traditions of enslaved people
Beloved perhaps?
posted by Ashwagandha at 2:10 PM on February 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

I had forgotten there was a film version of the John the Balladeer stories!

The others look promising as well! Thanks!
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:51 PM on February 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

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