Men are not okay in Alex Garland’s world. His newest film, the aptly-titled Men, is a much hyped follow-up to his previous directorial efforts Ex Machina, Annihilation and the TV series Devs, with a deceptively simple premise: Harper (Jessie Buckley) goes to the countryside in an attempt to heal herself after the death of her husband (Paapa Essiedu), but instead of a self-care weekend in the country, she encounters a creepy array of men (all played by Rory Kinnear) who begin to terrorise her.
Men has already divided critics. Some have called it the best horror film of the year, while others have decried it for being too on-the-nose with its gender-inflicted message of misogyny. You can never accuse Garland’s work of being thoughtless, though. Watching Men in the cinema is a full-bodied experience of anxiety, jaw-dropping body horror and, for some of us, an almost comedic sense of recognition of some of the more subtle microaggressions Harper has to put up with.
The film blends elements that will be familiar territory for horror fans: the isolated house, stalking, home invasion, unreliable phone service and passive police officers. But with the grotesque flourishes of body horror all wrapped up in pagan imagery, it cements Men as a shiny new entrant into the folk horror tradition, a subgenre of films that emphasises the ancient, and often involves cults or witchcraft while using folklore as backdrop for horror.
It’s a difficult genre to pin down. The documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched does a brilliant job of tracing its history and evolution, precisely because it’s rooted in unknowable truths and the particular history of each place – a tricky balancing act. Like the best of folk horror, Men leaves you with more questions than answers, so here are five more films to explore this thorny subgenre after watching the latest film from Alex Garland.
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
Most of Ben Wheatley’s oeuvre could make up this list, with films that flirt with folk (A Field in England) and those fully entrenched in the genre (In the Earth), but Kill List is a fantastic starting point. Neil Maskell plays a British soldier-turned-contract killer recently returned from a deployment in Kyiv. With influences as far and wide as Ken Loach and The Wickerman, the film is unpredictable by design, so the less known about the plot the better, with each new scene holding the possibility of a violent outburst brought on by the leading man’s disturbing past. Much like other folk horror titles in this list, the ending of Kill List reframes the entire film.
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
The daddy of folk horror films (not to be confused with the unfortunate 2006 remake) is Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. A zealous police officer travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing girl, and inadvertently becomes sucked into the pagan rituals of the island’s residents. What at first comes off as merely odd, the film starts taking on a more sinister tone before a completely deranged, spine-tingling final act.
Horror icon Sir Christopher Lee lords over the film as the island’s leader, Lord Summerisle, as he taunts the pious policeman. Now considered one of the most influential British films ever, it had an auspicious start, with Lee basically begging film critics to review it.
The Wicker Man is a genuinely weird film, and one that breaks every rule of horror and somehow still works, creating a sense of unease in each scene from start to finish.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971)
Next to The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw is considered one of the early films that catapulted the folk horror genre into being.
The film kicks off with the discovery of a strange skull in a village in 18th century England. Local teenagers, led by teen girl Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) with all the makings of a cult leader, become convinced it’s their key to summoning the devil. There’s ritualistic killings, a Black Mass and other assorted devil-worshipping shenanigans made all the more creepy because they’re being performed by children.
The film’s inventive (albeit low budget) visuals add to the satanic panic vibe of it all, and Angel Blake is a seductive villain whose flower child appearance makes her all the more creepy.
The Ritual (David Bruckner, 2017)
David Bruckner’s lads-lost-in-the-woods film is so much better than it has any right to be – what sounds like a same ’ol story turns out to be an evocative rollercoaster ride through a forbidden forest. Starring Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier and Sam Troughton as pals on a hiking trip across Northern Sweden in memory of their recently murdered friend, what starts off as a grieving trip turns dark when odd things start happening. The men all have nightmares, find strange markings on the trees and a dead elk hanging from some branches.
Tensions between them rise as their fear grows, with the threat of an unseen but massive creature waiting for them in the woods. Ancient Nordic myths come into play, and some truly deranged twists make for a great horror experience anchored by some well-written characters who are but pawns in a game much older and more twisted than we initially suspect.
Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson, 2021)
Not strictly a horror film, more of a phantastical family drama, the Icelandic arthouse hit starring Noomi Rapace is a good choice for people who found Men too scary for comfort. A married couple living the simple life on an isolated farmhouse in Iceland discover and adopt a half human-half lamb baby girl who they name Ada.
Their quiet life together gets thrown into disarray with a visit from Maria’s brother-in-law, who rattles their placid living by daring to ask why, exactly, are they raising a half-lamb as a human girl.
Adorable and uncanny at the same time, Lamb works as a fairytale and a folk horror, using the expansive Icelandic landscape and mythology to create a surprisingly sweet story with a few horrific turns.