Sundance Report: Folktales Most Frightening

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Religion. Nature. Sex. Death. Core, easy words that inspire countless, complex debates, raging as violently today as they ever did. Perhaps the best horror films are similar, with simple construct and conceit that allows the viewer to peel it all way. Horror films, the earliest inspired by literature and lore, are of course descendants of campfire tales and scary stories, things that boil down our base, fundamental fears (and sometimes conservatively bolster them). They externalize these fears into a physicalized other, or decomposing self. This year, the best horror movies out of the Sundance Film Festival continued this tradition, evoking folk and faerie tales and urban legends, cutting right to our anxieties over our bodies, our mortality, our gods and our planet. 

The most traditional, and yet possibly most subversive, example of such is the much celebrated The Witch, for which director Robert Eggers took home the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Beautifully crafted, with an eye for meticulous historical detail, The Witch announces itself as a folktale and lets the supernatural seep into a harsh reconstruction of 1630s New England life. A puritan family, exiled from their plantation for being too puritanical, make their way on an isolated farm next to the dense wood. Their reality, one of overt, rigid religious devotion—the father makes no bones about original sin and hellfire when discussing with his son the fate of the boy’s missing baby brother—is invaded by the Grimm and fantastical. The Witch is a frightening film no doubt, but its woodcut-esque witch, who changes appearance, pestle-and-mortars flesh, rides a broom and boasts animal familiars is also enchanting. She makes for a scary, if intoxicating alternative to the cruel approach of the fundamental family, and not just a reinforcement of it.

Both the upcoming It Follows and Sundance Midnight premiere Hellions meanwhile invoked legend in stories of adolescent sexual activity. The incredible It Follows, from director David Robert Mitchell, also blends an authentic portrait of existence—that of suburban youth—with the fantastic. Here, it appears in the form of a sexually transmitted curse and passed-on urban legend. This lumbering, dead-eyed stranger follows relentlessly, if slowly, and endlessly reminds the film’s characters of their impending doom; be it death or unmoving suburban adulthood, take your pick. Perhaps also subversive in its construct, It Follows unexpectedly doesn’t make one afraid to have sex, but posits its momentary exhilaration as one of the only reprieves from our certain fate.

Hellions takes on a fuller folk air, director Bruce McDonald’s infrared-lensed tint recalling the film’s Halloween atmosphere and setting, a town known as the “pumpkin capital of the world.” The film’s lead youngster Dora (Chloe Rose) learns of her unplanned pregnancy and then is beset upon by barrier-breaking demons, whose small forms are as children’s and are said to come on certain Halloween nights. The Hellions get in Dora’s ahead, whispering and vocalizing vicious self-doubt and guilt. Dora’s dilemma transforms her own, recognizable world into a similar middle ground. She, between adolescence and responsibility. Outside, between life and death, the natural and otherworldly.

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Finally, Corin Hardy’s Ireland-set The Hallow engages our inability to fully comprehend nature and what it hides. A conservationist, a sort of “tree doctor,” moves to the countryside and learns of The Hallow, this habitat of creatures from Irish folklore. The whole film, a fantastic creature feature, seems wrapped up in a message akin to “Nature isn’t ours, and if we are to disrespect it, it might well take away something that is.” Such a sentiment is embodied by the monsters, faeries and changelings themselves, which take on a woodsy exterior and aesthetic. They are the forest manifested, something natural yet mystical we should respect, if not revere.

This isn’t to say the more grounded and gritty are less impactful, but alongside last year’s storybook scare/grief allegory The Babadook, there’s something undeniable in the air. Audiences are embracing, and recoiling from, witches and creatures and specters that stalk. Harsh light of day horror may be effective, but does it allow a distance? Can you be anything less than “disturbed?” For a proper scare, Sundance shows the more metaphorical creeps that go bump in the night haven’t lost their luster.

For more, see Shock’s reviews of The Witch, It Follows, Hellions and The Hallow