Hubris, curiosity, naivety, a search for justice – whatever the character traits that lead our protagonists on their journey of discovery, if the story takes inspiration from The Wicker Man we know it probably won’t have a happy ending.
It’s been 50 years since The Wicker Man (a movie adaptation of David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual directed by Robin Hardy), took the bucolic ideal of the Scottish islands and absolutely ripped it to shreds. With this tale of an upright policeman investigating a disappearance that becomes increasingly strange and disturbing, Hardy created a folk horror that according to Total Film makes it easily into the Top 10 British movies of all time. Half a century later it is still the stuff of nightmares.
For this anniversary list honouring Hardy’s “Citizen Kane of horror movies” I’ve gone looking for films that play in the same way with place and atmosphere, with comfort and discomfort; films that prove what my grandmother used to say: ‘it’s not the dead ones that will hurt you.’ And each must deliver, of course, a journey of bad choices leading inexorably towards that delicious final turn of the screw.
1. Parasite (2019)
Academy-award-winning and, for me, one of the greatest movies of all time, there’s not a single thread or theme introduced that remains unresolved by the end and yet it all plays out so naturally. Director Bong Joon-ho also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won, impregnating it with his signature dark humour and social commentary.
An impoverished Korean family in Seoul trick their way one-by-one into employment with a wealthy household. When their employers leave on a camping trip, the imposters begin a ‘journey within’ their bosses’ high-end house, only to reveal they are not the only ones hiding something.
2. Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals was adapted and directed by designer Tom Ford and has all the ensuant style you would expect. Ford teases stand-out performances from Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. They play a divorced couple whose egos and deeply personal sufferings are played out in fictional violence, making this about so much more than rural moral depravity in deep West Texas.
3. Calibre (2018)
Set not in the islands but the highlands of Scotland, Calibre, like The Wicker Man, reverses local power politics. Instead of the days leading to midsummer, it deals, like my own Scottish thriller, in the melancholic autumnal hues of Scotland in fall. Writer and director Matt Palmer sets up a series of bloodcurdling moral dilemmas that see our pleasure-hunter protagonists getting deeper and deeper into trouble that will forever change them.
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Taking the Red Riding Hood ‘don’t stray from the path’ trope to a new level, The Blair Witch Project is a natural heir to The Wicker Man, starting with missing teenagers and drawing on the hubris and naivety of its characters, as well as our fear of cults and the occult.
The work not only innovated with a choppy, hand-held documentary style of filmmaking, but also with its associated marketing campaign. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez took a leaf out of Orson Welles’ playbook, making people think their story was real to generate interest. On a fake website complete with police reports, they ‘went public’ with information about three supposedly missing teens, so that when the movie premiered at Sundance, festival goers thought they were watching terrifying found footage of how the teenagers got lost in the woods.
The approach worked. The Blair Witch Project is one of the most successful independent films of all time, grossing $250,000 million worldwide, a return rate of over 33,000%.
5. Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan could be described as the godfather of the twist in modern filmmaking, so it’s no surprise to find him in this list. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis) is recovering from an attack by a former patient when he takes on a difficult new case: a young boy who is bullied by his peers and claims to be having supernatural episodes.
Willis takes the boy on various redemptive trips. The film’s famous twist is perhaps predictable but by that point the show has been well and truly stolen by then-child-actor Haley Joel Osment, who gives an outrageously good performance and was not even 11 when he had to utter one of cinema’s most chilling lines.
6. The Others (2001)
Nicole Kidman embodies the role of Grace Stewart with a pitch-perfect highly-strung sense of calm before the storm. A young mother during World War II, with a husband either away fighting or dead, Grace is struggling to manage her two poorly children and a vast country estate whose staff have abandoned her. When some strangers arrive, she cannot fathom if they are a blessing or a curse. A modern Gothic masterpiece by Chilean-Spanish writer and director Alejandro Amenábar, this film was on a syllabus I used to teach so I must have seen it at least a dozen times. It never gets old.
7. The Shining (1980)
An adaptation of Stephen King directed by Stanley Kubrick? The Shining is iconic for a reason. It tells of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) a struggling author and alcoholic, who takes a job as an off-season caretaker at the fictional Overlook Hotel in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where weather renders the place inaccessible for part of the year. Jack’s wife and young son go with him into the closed and deserted hotel, and soon the eerie isolation begins to take a toll on the family.
8. Shallow Grave (1995)
The feature-length directorial debut of Danny Boyle became a big deal when it was released in 1994, starring a young Ewan McGregor and paving the way for his appearance in Boyle’s Trainspotting two years later. Ablack comedy, treading the line between hysteria and bleakness, it tells the tale ofa group of Edinburgh flatmates who discover their new tenant has died, leaving them to decide what to do with the body, a suitcase full of cash – and their friendships.