More than perhaps any other subgenre, folk horror might be defined first and foremost as a vibe. Long a secret handshake among aficionados of such pagan-tinged UK frightfests as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, the term was brought fully into the zeitgeist by Kier-La Janisse’s towering 2021 documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which expanded the cultural parameters of the genre to include everything from Japanese yokai films to such American backwoodsploitation epics as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. These films are united by their roots in local customs and folklore, but moreover by a mood: of homemade dolls and rustic, handpainted furniture, of eldritch incantations and sinister old women, of, well, woodlands dark and days bewitched. You watch a slasher film or a monster movie to be scared or thrilled; you watch folk horror because you want to be immersed.
Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men is among the most extreme examples of this truism. While there is, I believe, a plot, it is not presented in any sort of conventional or linear manner; instead, we are presented with a series of images and scenes which seldom deign to explain themselves, but which certainly feel haunted. Enys Men will almost certainly be a divisive film (I heard more than a little grumbling as the lights went up at the Brattle), but for fans of the genre it will be like settling into a cozy, haunted cottage.
The facts of the case: we join an unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine, identified in the credits only as “The Volunteer”) in a cabin on an isolated British isle in the early 1970s. Each morning she wakes up, examines a small patch of flowers overlooking the sea, drops a stone into a very deep well, checks the temperature of the soil, then records her findings (almost invariably “No change”) and fires up the generator to make a pot of tea. In the evening, she gazes at an obelisk aligned directly between her front door and the setting sun. A plaque by the seaside commemorates a group of sailors who were lost several decades prior (very nearly to the day). The Volunteer has a large scar on her stomach. Occasionally she glimpses and exchanges brief words with a younger woman (Flo Crowne), but it is not clear whether or not she actually exists. Eventually, things happen; revealing them would probably be spoiler-y, but even if I did, the effect would be like recounting a nonsense dream in the light of day. Anyway, I’ve already probably devoted too many words to the plot of Enys Men, which exists largely as a vehicle for the visuals.
But man, what visuals. Enys Men was shot on honest-to-god 16mm film, a medium for which I will always be a sucker, particularly when used to convey the dreamy and the hauntological. The colors pop off the screen: the cherry-red mackintosh worn by the Volunteer, the verdant fields, the endless blue sky, even the tea tins in the cupboard. Adopting the look and signifiers of decades past is nothing new for horror, but this is one of the few “throwback” films that might actually trick me into thinking it was shot fifty years ago. Enys Men doesn’t feel like it should be a new film released in 2023; for that matter, it doesn’t feel like something that was released at all. This is a film that looks like it was discovered in a dusty cupboard, with no notes or clues as to who made it, or why.
As for the story… well, as much as “I need to see it again” has become a stock critical cop-out, this is a film for which repeated viewings are probably mandatory if one wants to understand what’s “happening” here. The purpose of the Volunteer’s tests is purposefully vague (Is she a scientist? A witch? A little of both?) and significant elements, such as the presence of the younger woman, are left unexplained until the final reel, and only loosely so then. I don’t consider the film a “puzzle box” narrative, that infuriatingly clever-clever post-Abrams mode of can-you-see-what-I’m-doing-here storytelling, as it seems too artful to have a single, pat explanation. As puzzles go, it’s more like a Magic Eye: soften your gaze, and things may come into focus.
But, again, that’s if you want to understand, which I’m not sure is necessary to enjoy Enys Men; in fact, it’s probably more enjoyable if you don’t. The pleasures of Enys Men are more tactile than narrative, its rhythms and editing as hypnotic as a Thelemic incantation. This is a horror movie, and contains its share of moments which made my hair stand on end, but I’m not sure I could rationally explain why these moments are so effectively creepy. Like a folktale so old you have to parse a dead dialect– which is to say, like the best folk horror movies– the terror comes from catching a glimpse of something so old as to be incomprehensible to modern eyes.
All that being said, I feel I should reiterate: many, many people are going to dislike this movie. Even by the standards of folk horror, Enys Men is elliptical and diffuse, and even those generally receptive to the genre may find themselves frustrated by its slow rhythms and unconventional structure. But for those on its wavelength (or arranged on the correct ley line), Enys Men will be indelible, a riddle you turn over in your head even as you’re aware there may not be an answer. I’m not sure how many people I’ll be able to comfortably recommend it to, but I can also see myself throwing it on with a cup of tea whenever I want to feel good and spooky– which is, ultimately, the folk horror ideal.
dir. Mark Jenkin
Part of the 2023 Boston Underground Film Festival – click here for schedule and ticket info, and click here to follow our continuing festival coverage!