In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
Today, we look at one of the most obscure folk horror’s to come out of America, Dark August.
Folk horror and occult horror have traditionally made good bedfellows. Films like The Witch, The Wicker Man, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw traditionally have made it harder and harder for people to delineate between these two sub-genres of horror that arguably shouldn’t be delineated. The one film that stands over folk and occult horror, the first of the unholy trilogy, like a looming dark shadow of a giant straw homunculus, is The Wicker Man. In that movie, a Christian police officer played by television icon Edward Woodward becomes wrapped up in the machinations of a pagan cult that has rejected the need for a traditional Christian God and substituted their own. In what respect is this different from traditional occult, witchy horror? This is a question we’ll get into properly but I want to introduce a film we’ll use as a reference, Dark August.
Directed by Martin Goldman and co-written by him and star J. J. Barry, it follows an interesting story. Opening with some sort of black mass or invocation spell, without us seeing the principals in the casting. We follow Sal DeVito, a visual artist from New York City who’s now living in the country. He is mentally unravelling under the strange influence of this strange presence hanging around his isolated studio, and increasingly in his life. It’s bringing out guilt in him over being involved in a car accident that killed a young girl. Although he was cleared of all responsibility, he’s a nervous wreck. He’s clearly struggled long and hard to put his guilt in his past but the strange goings on are causing it to eat him up inside. In order to solve his problems, he goes to visit the local witch.
The general structure of this plot will be familiar to horror veterans. It shares a lot of DNA with films like All The Colours of the Dark, Rosemary’s Baby, or even recently, the The Invisible Man remake. Writer Ernestro Gastaldi wrote many such plots and he says that his influence came from the Henri-Georges Clouzot classic Les Diaboliques although there are examples that predate it. The ultimate progenitor is probably Gaslight from 1944. The plot in such movies is that our lead character has some sort of troublesome mental past that over the course of the film will be unpicked as they spiral into mental instability. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin are both other classic pictures in this rubric. Brilliant as all these films are, the joining tissue with all of them, unfortunately, is that their mentally unstable lead is a woman. Now while this has led to an absolute wealth of complex, well performed lead roles for women in horror, it does say something unfortunate about society that our horror about women so constantly is selling women the image of their own misogynistically stereotyped fragility back to them. The fact is that these are often beautifully realised portraits of trauma but the gendered nature of these films are troubling. To make myself clear, to make one of these pictures is not a misogynist act in and of itself, but the prevalence of them and their widespread prevalence speaks to an already existing misogyny in our society. So for Dark August to be one of these pictures, beat for beat, but about a man falling apart in exactly the same way, and to make it as sensitive, deeply felt, and true is a very powerful and radical act just by default of being done properly. His trauma and grief are represented with real empathy and deep feeling. The way the film works in toxic masculinity, specifically, (struggling to open up and channeling feelings into negative emotions), makes this masculine story uniquely suited to this mode of storytelling, and shows us that this fallacy about gendering trauma based horror is so hollow.
While the film isn’t technically brilliant it has a definite stylistic ambition especially in its more overtly horrific sections. A sense of strong atmosphere is built that makes a definitively eerie film. The chase scenes are executed with a real gusto and thrill of the chase and it aims to end with an eerie ambiguity and sadness that lingers. This sense of melancholy works really well into the strong character work in the film. It has that wonderful 70s film thing where no one looks like movie stars, they just look like actual regular people you’d find in locations like this. Their performances are all very grounded and stocked with pathos.
I also love the approach to magic in this film. Philistine as I am, it at least feels like they did their research for this one. From what little I know it seems grounded in the actual beliefs and practices of contemporary magic believers and practitioners. There’s none of the overblown fantastical stuff, it’s just real enough to be believably creepy, to have an internal logic that’s just vague enough to be alien but just real enough to be tangible.
So what of this folk horror versus occult horror distinction? Dark August most definitely fits into both camps with its reminiscent of Season of the Witch grounded occultishness and its distinctly rural, fish out of water environment. It has a deep relationship with the spirits of the land, and something dark lying within woods that an American city person is totally alien to. At the end of the day, for the English, the pagan cult represents a similar fear to the witches in Dark August. A sublimated, anti Christian truth that has been suppressed and shunned, coming back to us as maybe the more true version. Something deep in the soil that was there long before Christianity, before civilisation, that was burnt out out of a fear of the other and out of a willingness to dominate. It represents a fear of the way we see things being wrong, read, dangerous and risking reprisal from something we don’t understand. Is that really not at the heart of all witchy horror? The only real difference is that paganism in The Wicker Man actively rejects Christianity and represents a pre-existing substitute, whereas witchery is actively the dark side of the Christian ideology. Is that really not the thing at the heart of all horror full stop? That there is a darkness inside us that we’re not willing to face and such a denial will be the end of us? As we head into the spooky season it’s something to ponder.
Have a happy Halloween when the time comes, everyone.