Stream With a Theme

Stream With a Theme: The Best Rural Horror Films Set in Britain

As Mark Jenkin's folk horror Enys Men arrives in UK cinemas, Steph Green recommends further viewing in this eerie pocket of cinema

With the release of Mark Jenkin's 70s-set Cornish folk horror Enys Men – and a corresponding season taking place at the BFI dedicated to the film’s “cinematic DNA” – the time is ripe to look back at how rural British horror, particularly that of the second half of the twentieth century, remains such a tangible influence on filmmakers working today.

While the 1970s saw thrumming political discontent and musical rebellion in the big cities, many horror films of the period turned to the home counties, the countryside, and far-flung environs to explore simmering tensions between man and land. Their exploration of hurtling change versus a yearning for old Albion typicalised the anxieties of the period and the emergence of New Age ideals, and these issues are starting to rear their heads once more: not just in the works of Jenkin, but other contemporary British horror directors from Ben Wheatley to Alex Garland.

From iconic works of the folk horror genre to spookily serene invocations of erstwhile village life, prepare yourself for Enys Men’s cryptic charms with these similarly eerie picks…

 

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

Where to stream it: YouTube

“It is a story of solitude and terror” a voiceover informs us, wind flowing over the blustery East Anglian coast, as a tiny dot in the distance slowly forms the image of a well-to-do man crossing the sands. Whistle and I’ll Come to You, a BBC adaptation of the 1904 British short story by M.R. James, sees a finicky, rituals-obsessed academic (Michael Hordern) discover a bone on one of his coastal expeditions, blowing into it and unwittingly unleashing an uncanny curse. Creepy sound design – the wailing whisper of wind kissing the hills, or Hordern’s terrified, guttural moans in the face of a sheet-like spectre – helps craft an atmosphere of awful foreboding. Just like Enys Men’s dogged, lonely protagonist, we see a psychological breakdown inched towards with subtle horror.

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

It doesn’t get more iconic than The Wicker Man, perhaps one of the finest British horror films ever made. Dispensing with the viscera associated with British B-horror at the time and opting for an atmosphere of sun-drenched dread, it sees a police sergeant journeying to a remote Hebridean island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl whom all the inhabitants refuse to acknowledge ever existed. Astute about sexual repression, unyielding commitments to farcical traditions and insidious, gaslighting groupthink, the links to Enys Men are clear: the stiff morals of the British, evangelical middle class sparring with the wacky, free-wheeling folk traditions upon which this country was built.

 

Symptoms (1974)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Schlock-peddler José Ramón Larraz documented a slow descent into madness with Symptoms, long-considered lost until the discovery of the original negative led to a 2016 remaster. It sees a young woman lured to an isolated country manor (run!) by a creepy friend, with her host increasingly perturbed by the river and autumnal forest by the home, which is shot with shades of mouldy ochre yellow. It’s something of a British giallo, with pulpy tropes and glinting knives galore – but also with a creeping feeling of slow dread, Angela Pleasance’s saucer-wide blue eyes turning from milky innocence to mad-eyed rage. With the protagonist’s ritualistic obsessions, and the gothic horror innate within the manor’s Victorian interiors as rain pounds against windows, this an atmospheric, slow-burn feast.

 

Penda's Fen (1974)

Where to stream it: BritBox

While the sorely underseen director Alan Clarke is best known for his gritty, urban TV films about overt violence, juvenile delinquency and state-sanctioned cruelty, Penda’s Fen is something a little more esoteric and dreamlike. Betwixt dreamlike interactions with angels and demons, it sees 17-year-old Stephen (Spencer Banks) come of age, or rather come apart, as he, devout and conservative, struggles to reconcile England’s folk history and his incipient homosexuality with a society that expects strict religious order. Set in a small Worcestershire village and drenched in pagan surrealism, it a complex and pioneering work that requires a patient viewer to slowly swallow its wordy thesis – yet the rewards are rich and bountiful.

Requiem for a Village (1975)

Where to stream it: BFI Player

Directly referenced by Jenkin as an influence on Enys Men, in particular one ghostly scene where the dead rise from their graves in an overgrown Suffolk churchyard, Requiem for a Village is at turns surreal and docurealist. The bucolic environs of two rural villages, Metfield and Witnesham, form the setting for this intriguing, pint-sized feature, where director David Gladwell bursts open the pastoral idyll and digs up the dirt under the bloom. Shots of straw hats and lace blouses are spliced with scenes of bones floating in rivers and shocking acts of sexual violence, while haunting choral music adds yet more uncanniness to the slow-mo sequences. A paean to a lost world, perhaps, or a cursed canticle to memories best left in the past.

 

The Shout (1978)

Where to stream it: BFI Player

Blowing away sheltered, English ideals with a beastly shamanic roar, Jerzy Skolimowski’s British horror film sees Devon-based couple Anthony and Rachel (John Hurt and Susanna York) fall prey to the sinister, uber-enlightened charms of Crossley (Alan Bates), who claims to be able to produce a “terror shout” that can kill anyone who hears it. You may scoff at a plot summary where a man causes havoc because aboriginal tribes taught him a magical shout. But when that titular shout happens – blood-curdling, nerve-fraying, skin-tingling – you find yourself engulfed in Bates’ awful, gaping mouth, a Francis Bacon painting made flesh. Shot on location, the Devon sand dunes – like Enys Men’s craggy Cornish island – become part of the horror itself, with the pastoral beauty belying hidden horrors.

 

The Orchard End Murder (1981)

Where to stream it: BFI Player

A 48-minute curio about hidden worms within the charming, apple-laden countryside, The Orchard End Murder begins at a village cricket match in Kent before caving in on its own Edenic walls to produce something of shocking sleaze. Released in 1981 but set in 1966, there’s an awful sense of foreboding in the demise of lead character, city girl Pauline – her mod dress roughly ripped apart before scenes of humiliating assault – with flashes of Alfred Hitchcock’s macabre Frenzy in this green and not so pleasant land. This Britsploitation hidden gem finds its macabre vibe through strange characters lurking in cottages and train stations; a simple fable about being literally buried under the weight of something beautiful, where there’s something always on the verge of rotting.

 

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Where to stream it: Shudder

Where some of the films on this list zig to subtlety, The Lair of the White Worm zags to sheer maximalist chaos. Naturally, considering the director at hand. In this schlocky and loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name (“widely considered one of the worst books ever written,” according to its Wikipedia entry), Ken Russell bastardizes the English folk legend of the Lambton Worm, turning it into a romp of Gothic excess. We’re placed deep in the Derbyshire countryside with archaeologist Angus (Peter Capaldi) who unearths a snake skull he believes to be linked to the ancient legend. Throw in an S&M priestess obsessed with sacrifice and seduction, a young Hugh Grant slaying a giant worm and visions of nuns being brutalized, and you have something not quite so eerie, perhaps, but beguilingly bizarre.

Enys Men is released in UK cinemas on 13 January. You can read our full review here.

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