As a horror fan, there’s a dirge of genres and subgenres to fall in love with, each complete with their own wells of knowledge and history, creating a world to explore and understand. For many slashers or creature features, there’s an entire subgenre of documentaries, interviews, and essays written about the fictional depths of these flicks, and studying and understanding them is often synonymous with pop culture. However, there’s also the flipside, where a horror film’s mythology isn’t crafted to suit its world, but the world of the film itself is crafted around existing mythology from the real world! Folklore, mythology, wives tales, no matter what you call it, is a lightning rod for horrific stories that have captivated audiences for years. While they’re not exactly rare–at least not in North America– movies based on folklore are a special treat for the right kind of horror nerd. Here’s five examples to get warmed up with!
5. The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)
One of Wes Craven’s best films, and my personal favorite, Craven takes a familiar subject matter of his like dreams and dreaming, and adds in a heaping helping of real-world occultism and voodoo practices. In doing this, he’s creating a real-life smorgasbord of terror that blurs the line between fact and fiction, of dreams and reality, and leaves the viewer in the same disoriented world as the main character–played to smug perfection by Bill Pullman. The film itself is relatively sparse when it comes to the actual mechanics of voodoo poisoning, but it does establish the world, atmosphere, and culture of voodoo that feels authentic as it is terrifying. The details about the kinds of powders and poisons used are accurate if lacking in depth, but the aim of the movie is to capture the fear and helplessness of being subsumed by a culture and power you cannot really intellectually process. Serpent And The Rainbow is a movie that doesn’t quite commit to being a genuine exploration of culture, nor to being a full-time slasher-style schlock fest of dreams and voodoo powers. It’s a self-serious film that tries to capture the confusion of falling into something bigger than you, that’s way over your head, and it does it amicably.
4. Nightwatch (2004)
Despite being a relatively recent film, and a huge blockbuster success in its mother country of Russia, most people think of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed whenever this one is mentioned, or get it confused with a different, similarly titled film. It’s a shame, but understandable, as Nightwatch is a forgettable title for such an unforgettable film. Created by Timur Bekmembatov, a Russian director known for his visual flair, Nightwatch is a positronic digital mixing board of high and low brow humor, cultural in-jokes, mythological parody, and epic fantasy storytelling, all wrapped up in a modernized, slick, leather-clad sheen that echoes contemporary classics like The Matrix. Nightwatch is a movie where all the forces of darkness, keep a “watch” on all the forces of light, and vice versa, in a sort of system of checks and balances that keeps either side from destroying each other forever, and undoing a balance that keeps peace on Earth. To say that the film goes to lengths to draw moral ambiguity between the two “sides”, would be understating things. It’s a typical heroes journey dressed up in insanely layered Russian mythology behind any and every supernatural entity you can think of, and more you assuredly can’t. There are a few incredible scenes with vampires and mirrors that defy traditional mythological convention, and multiple characters are supernatural shapeshifters or more, and their casual dialogue about supernatural concerns is pure gold. I’m honestly surprised this hasn’t been remade yet in some watered-down form, and I suppose its heavy reliance upon Russian mythology is a part of it. It also has a fantastic sequel, called Daywatch, that’s definitely worth checking out too!
3.) The Witch (2016)
By far the most period accurate and deeply researched film on this list. And while audiences may have been split on the film’s merits, nobody can deny the film’s dedication towards authenticity. A fascinating tale of a family banished to a remote chunk of forest due to religious persecution, The Witch explores a multitude of themes and substories all while maintaining a true throughline of narrative that purposely anchors itself firmly in the Christian mythology of satanism and witchcraft. Every single line of verse, every prayer, word, living detail, and aspect of the supernatural is accounted for in some manner of historical text and precedent, right down to the stylized spelling of The VVitch, with its period-accurate double V’s instead of a proper W. The Witch is a modern Ingmar Bergman film, a meditation on madness, religious obsession, patriarchy, feminine identity, internalized misogyny and the unknowable supernatural, all while being believably portrayed in a way that’ll either enrapture or bore audiences to tears. If you’re at all interested in 16th-century religious politics, there’s a lot of background detail to soak up while watching an innocent girl succumb to the many forces tearing her apart in life.
2. Thale (2012)
Going deeper into Norwegian mythology than the average film, this is a low budget thriller about a couple of guys who stumble upon a naked woman in the woods with a tail. They try to help her at first, but her mystical ways lead to the duo getting wrapped up in a much larger story than they could have imagined, that involves government experimentation, secret projects, and entire mythological races of beings. Thale is a briskly paced little movie that shows what would happen if two relatively normal guys happened to stumble upon a kind of Norwegian wood nymph, and all of the consequences that come with sheltering a supernatural entity, even if your intentions are benevolent. Worth a watch, Thale is a great example of a mythological concept made human, and very real.
1. Trollhunter (2010)
In the midst of 2010, supernaturally inclined reality TV shows were really big. There were about 3-4 different shows dedicated to finding ghosts, multiple others to finding cryptids like Bigfoot, and a few others following aliens, dimensional oddities, and the like. The fact of the matter is that there was and is a huge audience for these kinds of “hidden truths of the world” shows, and Trollhunter is a Norwegian mockumentary that takes that fad of reality TV and exploits it to its natural endpoint. What you end up with is a fascinating “slice of life” take on a guy who is somehow, hilariously, and singlehandedly responsible for covering up the existence of actual, gigantic, Nordic trolls. The pretext of the film is that the government has covered up their existence, and the camera crew filming the movie you’re watching is looking to expose the truth of trolls once and for all. A collection of Norwegian troll myths both debunked and confirmed surround this film’s story, as it goes to great lengths to explain many of the mythological idiosyncracies of trolls, and separates what’s “fact” from just “hearsay.” I assure you, nothing is quite as sublimely absurd as watching a group of characters angrily argue over which fake facts are more or less fake to take on the real threat they’re dealing with. On top of that, the special effects are excellent, and the film is briskly paced to boot. If you’ve not seen this, do yourself a favor and find the version with subtitles, because the dub is just atrociously bad, and will ruin much of the film’s humor and mythological cleverness.
There you have it, five films anyone who is into myths, folklore, and history will find fascinating. While I’m sure there are plenty more examples of real-life folklore leading to great films, these are just five standouts that show how the old world can influence and inspire the new. Films like these are necessary to bring to life a cultural form of storytelling and characterization that shouldn’t be forgotten to the winds of time and lost memory. They show us a certain level of juxtaposition that’s no longer apparent or detectable when every single supernatural aspect of existence is modernized into superfluousness and redundancy. Plus, they’re dang fun! Did we miss any great movies that feature folklore heavily? Any favorite of yours we need to know about? Sound off in the comments below!
Images: A24, Universal Pictures