Horror cinema : through the theatrical and the folklore


Text: Vatsala Manan

Horror allows the avenue into the uncanny and the unknown. The most liberating aspect of this genre is that it is boundless. One can explore any new form, adapt and incorporate older narratives, and play around with immense freedom, both in the manner of form and content. Narrative can often tend to be just an excuse to explore tabooed or hushed themes and issues relevant to us and the society that we live in.
However, most often Horror is relegated as belonging to the category of cheap thrills and easy scares. True, some uninspired filmmakers resort to the redundant tropes and antics to illicit screams and eye shutting, and most often fail shamelessly. To create a sense of “horror” horror aesthetics, props, mood and tone are as integral as the dominant narrative. Especially so when the movie may not be actually dealing with the run-of-the-mill over dramatic accounts of haunting ghosts, restless spirits or doomed cursed teenagers.
The following movies rework folk or classic narrative tropes, bringing the inherent often-overlooked horror to the surface by using the conventional devices and tactics, innovatively. Such devices not only render the familiar and the “normal” absurd, distorting the ordinary, but also further open up the potentials to recognize the underlying rawness of human nature, with all its beauty as well as grotesque aspects.


Onibaba, 1964, Kaneto Shindo


Shindo explores raw eroticism and survival instinctiveness in this movie set in Japan of the 14th century, ravaged by a civil war. Inspired by a Japanese folklore of a hag called Onibaba,
the narrative concentrates on the lives of two peasant ladies, a mother and her daughter-in-law. The war has reduced them to their animalistic instincts. Shindo’s employment of the Noh theatrical props, taking dramatic cues the startling tense folk drum beats as the background score, creates a sense of thrill and provide a touch of sinister element to the maze of wild reeds, eerily rippling in the electrifying wind.


The Wickerman, 1973, Robert Hardy


Considered as the “Citizen Kane of horror films”, what Robin Hardy presents us is a set of highly eccentric characters. The narrative, mystical as well as at times comically bizarre, revolves around a Sergeant Howie who travels to a remote island in order to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The horror lies in the deceiving regularity of the town folk and the cosy appearing town establishments, the town is inhabited by pagans, who worship Celtic gods, prance around nude in the wilderness, conduct orgies, and practice rites of human sacrifice.

The use of the Wicker Man as a sacrificial shrine brings a huge and shocking relief from the conventional elements of blood and gore to create horror.


Tale of Tales, 2015, Matteo Garrone


Showing the darker side of the classic fairy tales, Garrone’s Tale of Tales brings together the fantastical with the real, just like Apichatpong, though setting the narrative in the 17th century rather than the present. The movie is a compilation of three segments, each obscenely magical in its raw beauty.


Lost Highway, 1997, David Lynch


Lynch’s whole body of work concerns with flipping the idea of normalcy, exposing the raw crude reality that lies beneath the picturesque idea of normality. Lost Highway is an amalgamation of twisted plot lines and visually uncanny imagery, with Lynch overworking various established Hollywood genres, like road movie, film noir and porn, giving us an unformed chilling relation with reality devoid of all the rosiness and gloss. The Mystery man with his Kabuki make up, looming in the dark corners, emerging from shadowy never ending corridors, is the perfect metaphor of the darkness, fears and horrors that lurks in the protagonist’s mind, a doppelganger of him or a persona of his consciousness, it seems that the true horror lies in confronting oneself.


Tropical Malady, 2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul


A fantastical romantic movie, the narrative is split into two, the first about the love between a soldier and a country boy, the second about a soldier who gets lost in the woods as he tries to rescue a villager from a man eating tiger. Apichatpong uses the two contrasting narratives as foils, while at the same time to allude to the underlying similarities. Referring to Thai folktales about shamans, and Buddhist literature on humans and nature, the movie comes across as “magical-realist”, though Apichatpong’s seeks to evade any such restrictive definitions.

The dense jungle, where time and the idea of a modern capitalized civilization loses all meaning, invokes the horror that the protagonist must brave to acknowledge his past and traditions.