This themed selection of films is curated by the project’s investigator Cüneyt Çakırlar for the Istanbul Film Festival (8-19 April 2022). The programme aims to introduce Istanbul’s festival audiences to geographically diverse representations of folk horror in world cinema. Engaging with the recent revival of the folk horror genre featuring witches, shamans, trolls, djinns, demons, black magic and other paranormal phenomena, these films range from contemporary examples to historically significant masterpieces of horror film. The festival programme can be accessed here.
Zalava, Arsalan Amiri, Iran, 2021
“Investigating reports of demonic possessions in a remote village, a skeptical military officer finds his beliefs tested by an enigmatic exorcist. In Kurdistan, nestled among the mountains of northwestern Iran, the village of Zalava is cursed by an ancient fear that demons secretly fester in its midst. Critically setting his film in 1978, at the onset of the Iranian Revolution, writer-director Arsalan Amiri conjures an eerie atmosphere, sensitively laced with bitter irony as his script (co-written with Ida Panahandeh and Tahmineh Bahram) wrestles with paradoxical arguments about faith, tradition, and modernity in the face of an ambiguous threat. Escalating to Schrödinger’s demon scenarios of sublime suspense — artfully photographed by Mohammad Rasouli — this dread-filled fable eventually crystalizes these tensions in an irresistible, metaphysical horror dilemma that is guaranteed to haunt you the next time you handle a sealed glass jar, regardless of whether or not a demon waits inside”. (TIFF)
Saloum, Jean Luc Herbulot, Senegal, 2021
“In Herbulot’s cool and kinetic genre-shifting supernatural thriller, a legendary trio of on-the-run mercenaries carrying a stolen gold bounty and a kidnapped drug lord take refuge in a remote and mystical area of Senegal, where dark ancestral forces unleash hell on them all” (Privio official synopsis).
Elsewhere, Vybeke Bryld, Denmark, 2021
‘An ancient legend about fallen angels and an invisible vagabond called Beelzebub: this is not fantasy, but the myths of the North-Western Danish region of Thy. Sensually saturated cinematography is accompanied by narration in authentic Thybo dialect to retell the myths that have shaped the people north of the Limfjord and still influence them today. Testimonies from today’s residents of Thy describe inexplicable events, accidents and rituals, but central to all the stories is nature itself. The windswept landscape, which is just as beautiful as it is relentless. Vibeke Bryld re-enchants the nature of Northern Jutland as she lets her camera sweep across cornfields and hills, crumbling buildings and lush gardens, in a free and expressive account of the stories that bind a local community together. Here, nature is not something that needs to be understood, but felt” (Nordic:Dox Award 2021).
ICH-CHI, Kostas Marsan, Yakutia, Russia, 2020
“A Yakut family run an isolated farm in the Republic of Sakha, the largest region in Russia, but also the most inhospitable. Tensions are on the rise when one of their sons returns home with his wife and child, begging his parents to sell the farm to help him pay off a debt. Meanwhile, their father has unwittingly unearthed an evil presence buried on the property. With tensions already on the rise, what will tear this family apart first, the crumbling relationships or this impending evil presence?
One of the key examples of the growing film culture in contemporary Yakutsk, Marsan’s film engages with the shamanic roots of the Sakha folklore” (TVCO synopsis).
Juju Stories, Michael Omonua, C.J. Obasi, Abba Makama, Nigeria, 2020
A three-part anthology film exploring juju (magical) stories rooted in Nigerian folklore and urban legend, written and directed by the new wave Nigerian cinema collective known as Surreal16. Juju Stories tackles juju in contemporary Lagos through three stories. In Love Potion, by Michael Omonua, an unmarried woman agrees to use juju to find herself an ideal mate. In Yam, by Abba T. Makama, consequences arise when a street urchin picks up seemingly random money from the roadside. In Suffer the Witch, by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, love and friendship turn into obsession, when a young college woman attracts her crush’s interest. (British Film Institute)
Kandisha, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, France, 2020
Directed by the New French Extremity duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (INSIDE (2007) and LIVID (2011)), Kandisha (2020) is a reinterpretation of the Moroccan folk legend and its story takes place in a French banlieuesetting. It is summer break and best friends Amélie, Bintou and Morjana hang together with other neighbourhood teens. Nightly, they have fun sharing scary stories and urban legends. But when Amélie is assaulted by her ex, she remembers the story of Kandisha, a powerful and vengeful demon. Afraid and upset, Amélie summons her. The next day, her ex is found dead. The legend is true and now Kandisha is on a killing spree—and it’s up to the three girls to break the curse.
La Casa Lobo / The Wolf House, Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña, Chile, 2018
“An innovative stop-motion animation, The Wolf House tells the grim fairy tale of Maria, a young woman who finds refuge in a house in the south of Chile after escaping from a sect of German religious fanatics. She is welcomed into the home by two pigs, the only inhabitants of the place. As in a dream, the universe of the house reacts to Maria’s feelings. The animals transform slowly into humans and the house becomes a nightmarish world.
A fairy tale inspired (and ostensibly produced) by Colonia Dignidad — the cult-like Chilean enclave founded by German fugitive Paul Schäfer, a paedophile who raped the members of his community, provided shelter to Nazi war criminals like Josef Mengele, and tortured Pinochet’s enemies in exchange for his support — The Wolf House takes the folk tale of the Three Little Pigs and filters it through the warped mind of a profoundly traumatized little girl” (Ramirez in ReMezcla).
Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve & Anand Gandhi, India, 2018
“A truly scary horror film is a rare treat in South Asian cinema, but director Rahi Anil Barve delivers one, in some style, with this mythical cautionary tale. Vinayak is the conniving illegitimate son of a local landlord, living in the decrepit, ancient village of Tumbbad. Obsessed with unearthing a fabled ancestral treasure, he suspects that the secret lies with his great grandmother, a cursed witch who has been trapped for centuries in a purgatory between life and death. Tricking her, he discovers the secret that will lead him to the riches, but also a voracious, otherworldly force. What begins as a cunning plan to steal a small fortune quickly spirals into a reckless obsession that finds Vinayak facing up to an unexpected and hair-raising reckoning” (BFI).
Gwledd / The Feast, Lee Haven Jones, United Kingdom, 2021
“As a wealthy family prepare for an elegant soirée at their ultra-modern, minimalist home in the Welsh mountains, tensions are running high. With a valuable business venture at stake, this bourgeois clan must impress their guests at all costs if they are to secure an all-important deal to mine the surrounding countryside. Luckily the enigmatic Cadi, their waitress for the evening, is on hand to assist. But something seems off with their hired help, who might be there to serve up more than just the main course. With its sly anti-capitalist, eco twist, Lee Haven Jones’ politically conscious horror story is a masterclass in insidious discomfort and escalating tension” (BFI).
“The Feast laments our grasping era’s loss of respect for the ancient land, its flora and fauna and earthy folk culture, but it is itself as coolly, gleamingly modern as brushed steel” (Variety).
Hagazussa, Lukas Feigelfeld, Austria & Germany, 2017
“Hagazussa is a dark and moody supernatural tale and a debut film from the German director Lukas Feigelfeld. The film takes place in a remote mountain village in the 15th-century Alps, and follows Albrun, a goat-herder shunned by her fellow townspeople who finds herself in an uneasy friendship with a local villager.
The term hagazussa or hagzissa is an Old High German word for a witch and the origin of the word “hag”. Witches have had a long history in German folklore as older women who live secluded in the woods away from the rest of the village. Parents would use this folklore to scare their misbehaving children by telling them that the local witch would eat them. In many cases, these women were either poor or mentally ill individuals who were outcast from society. Hagazussa presents a poetic image of the witch. Feigelfeld makes use of the rich “Alpine” heritage of the witch and the perchta in German paganism” (Ghoulish Media review).
Post Mortem, Péter Bergendy, Hungary, 2021
“Tomás (Klem) survived being blown up and almost left for dead in the trenches, and has taken up the art of post mortem photography in a travelling carnival. The man who saved him – who was a cameraman in the war – acts as his mouthpiece in the show, revealing what he saw when he was ‘dead’. He meets a girl, Anna (Hais), who he’s sure he’s seen before, who tells him there are plenty of people to photograph at her village since they’ve been afflicted with the Spanish flu. There’s not just the dead to work with, as Tomás and Anna must deal with a full town of ghosts. Using elements of folk horror and a black humour with a stylish cinematography, Post Mortem is nominated by the Hungarian National Film Institute as the official contender for 2022 Academy Awards for the best international feature film” (Unsworth in Starbust)
Io Island, Kim Ki-young, South Korea, 1977
Investing in the folkloric themes of East Asian animism (shamanism), Io Island is a story about property speculation and investigative journalism set against an old Korean legend of the island (Iodo) which appears to fishermen before their deaths at sea. Directed by one of the masters of Korean cinema, Kim Ki-young, Io Island blends the genres of melodrama, erotic thriller/noir, and folk horror, and invites us to an intensely cinematic experience of shamans, spirits, black magic, and vengeful women.
“Korean cinema has produced no obvious successor to Kim Ki-young since his death in 1998. (…) But more than 40 years after it opened, Iodo somehow continues to startle, even shock. Some of that reaction it draws with its final sex scene, an explicit one by even modern standards but also a depiction of an act of necrophilia, presided over by the sinister mudang. Kim couldn’t possibly have imagined he would get that past Korea’s censors, and indeed, it only survives today because an unexpurgated print was found in Japan. It was as if he foresaw the resurgence of interest in his work in the 1990s, after it had been all but forgotten amid the formulaic barrenness of the 1980s. The long afterlife of Kim’s filmography has continued: Im Sang-soo remade The Housemaid in 2010, and Iodo recently underwent a restoration by the Korean Film Council” (Colin Marshall in LARB 2019).
Kuroneko, Kaneto Shindo, Japan, 1968
In this ghost story based on a folk tale of feudal Japan, a group of samurai mercenaries led by Raiko Minamoto (Kei Satô) storm the home of Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter, Shigei (Kiwako Taichi), pillaging their food before raping and murdering the pair and finally burning the house down. When the samurai are set upon by vengeful vampire-like ghosts, it falls to the warrior Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) to slay the malicious spirits, but his connection to the victims leads to conflict. The critic Maitland McDonagh called Shindo’s Kuroneko “darkly seductive” and “sleek, hair-raisingly graceful, and ready to take its place alongside the other landmarks of Japanese horror history”.
Mystics in Bali, H. Tjut Djalil , Indonesia, 1981
Based on the novel Leák Ngakak by Putra Mada, Mystics in Bali focuses on black magic and borrows from Southeast Asian folklore and Balinese mythology, specifically the Leak and the Penanggalan, spirits that appear in the form of a flying head with organs and entrails still attached. The film has been deemed a cult classic of Indonesian horror cinema.
Vinegar Baths, Amanda Nell Eu, Malaysia, 2019
Visceral and almost dreamlike, Vinegar Baths is a short film about a tired and overworked nurse who finds joy in late night moments of being alone and to satisfy her hunger. Exploring the myth of the penanggalan, the Malaysian artist and filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu adds a new dimension to her exploration of the woman’s body and identity within the Southeast Asia. Eu’s film is a contemporary account of Southeast Asian folklore and its cultural relevance to the gender politics and inequality today.
It’s Easier to Raise Cattle, Amanda Nell Eu, Malaysia, 2017
It’s Easier to Raise Cattle is Eu’s tribute to the vengeful man-eating vampiric entity of Malaysian folklore, the most popular embodiment of horror genre in Malaysian cinema: the pontianak. In Southeast Asian folklore, a woman who dies in childbirth or as a result of rape turns into a Pontianak. Eu asks: ‘imagine if she [the pontianak] was your best friend. Imagine the amount of pain and suffering she went through, the way she was treated, her anger and wrath’. Eu’s film tells the story of two young women’s uncanny friendship in a remote village. As one discovers the other’s dark secrets, she observes the changes in her new friend to the point of violence, monstrosity, and affection. It’s Easier to Raise Cattle shifts the pontianak’s generic location in Asian visual culture from horror to a feminist allegory of coming-of-age. Eu notes that her film ‘is about the sexuality of young girls, their wild and raw side, and also their gentle and loving side. And those are things that people fear about women.’
“As an attempt to examine the cultural and political implication of rural approach on horror cinema in Indonesia, Ghost Like Us offers an essayistic approach that investigates the rural-urban dynamic in horror cinema from the New Order regime to the dawn of deconstructed horror genre found in the kino-pravda style Misteri Bondowoso. Based on that study, this essay film asks question, that Thomas Elsaesser famously put it, “when and where is cinema?” according to the relation between hauntology, authority-autonomy, and cinematic apparatus. In addition, it demonstrates a poetic reflection of horror, ideology, the evolution of cinema, and cinematic-thinking in understanding the current landscape of media technology in Indonesia and Asia.” Riar Rizaldi