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Folk Horror Traditions
by Devin McGrath-Conwell
Edgar Wright, alongside Quentin Tarantino, is arguably the highest-profile contemporary director with a penchant for pastiche and genre homage. Nowhere is this clearer than in Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, made up of Shaun of the Dead (UK, Edgar Wright, 2004), Hot Fuzz (UK, Edgar Wright, 2007), and The World’s End (UK, Edgar Wright, 2013). Each entry in the trilogy fixates on an established genre setting while filtering its characters and narratives through Wright’s kaleidoscopic and loving satirisation. Shaun of the Dead fixates on zombie movies, The World’s End similarly reflects on alien invasion science fiction films, and Hot Fuzz topically turns to American buddy-cop pictures. Yes, underneath the police-centric action and knowing nods to Point Break (US, Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) and Bad Boys II (US, Michael Bay, 2003), Hot Fuzz builds from an entirely different genre foundation; British folk horror.
Hot Fuzz centres on no-nonsense officer Sgt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) as he begrudgingly accepts a transfer from London to rural Sandford Village. Enraged that his superiors have booted him to the countryside since he was “making [them] all look bad,” Angel imagines he will have nothing before him apart from an unending stream of farmland squabbles and boredom. At first, nothing occurs to prove him wrong. Gradually though, a series of fatal ‘accidents’ involving townsfolk begin convincing Angel and his bumbling but lovable partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) that there may in fact be something rotten and deadly festering within the village. It is that wrinkle, a development revealed earlier to the audience through scenes Angel and Butterman are not privy to, which declares Hot Fuzz’s folk horror lineage. What Angel and Butterman discover is that the cult-like Neighbourhood Watch is killing their errant neighbours so that Sandford will avoid the embarrassment of losing the ‘Village of the Year’ competition.
Yes, the reveal is quite comical, a tone in line with Wright’s satirical bent. Nonetheless, the integral components of the plot and characters link back to some of the most longstanding tropes and archetypes of folk horror. Through examining Angel’s connection to outsider protagonists, Sandford’s place in the lineage of twisted townships, and finally the Neighbourhood Watch’s classical embodiment of hidden evil, we can firmly place Hot Fuzz in the folk horror canon.
With a name straight out of Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Sgt. Angel is the personification of the overly intense police officer. Angel also possesses the key aspect of protagonists in many folk horror films: Angel is an outsider. His London-based, urban background, set up with blistering efficiency by Wright, is the central tenet of the satire that places a city-action-hero
in a, assumedly, sleepy village. Of course, that mishmash is traditional to folk horror. In the mould of The Wicker Man’s (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973) Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodard), and the even earlier John Holden (Dana Andrews) of Night of the Demon (UK, Jacques Tourneur, 1957), Angel arrives in Sandford Village utterly disconnected. Howie is the clearest parallel in that both he and Angel are lawmen, but Holden, as an academic seeking answer for a colleague’s disappearance in remote Scotland, is not far divorced.
Therefore, in a similar fashion to both aforementioned characters, Angel acts as an audience surrogate into this new realm. Structurally, the main difference for Angel is that he arrives unaware of the darkness lurking in Sandford. Both Howie and Holden are tasked with solving a disappearance, so while they know not the specifics of the danger they are generally tipped off to something being amiss. Angel presumes his stereotypes of rural England will hold true for Sandford, and so his gradual discovery of the truth operates as more startling than the twisted realities presaged in The Wicker Man and Night of the Demon. From a viewer’s perspective, it also results in a heightened connection to Angel as the protagonist. We worry for Angel as he descends into Sandford’s wickedness, the blend of action and folk horror bombarding him with all manner of deadliness from hooded slashers to gun-toting farmers.
In addition, Angel mirrors Howie and Holden in that his belief system is what sets him most at odds with Sandford, both prior to the Neighbourhood Watch review and after. That confliction of beliefs is key to folk horror protagonists. Howie’s Christianity opposes Summerisle’s Paganism. Holden’s adherence to science defies the possibility of a real demon. Angel, as noted above, is distinctly urban in his stance on life, holding law, order, and modernity close to his heart. Sandford is a bastion of traditionalism and convention. Angel conflicts at every turn, whether it is with his police colleague’s lackadaisical attitudes, Danny’s obsession with romanticising police work, or the later violent resistance to the Neighbourhood Watch. Where Hot Fuzz’s genre blend above folk horror distinguishes from pure genre iterations is that by the end Angel has accepted the healthy components of rural life, and chosen even to stay in the locale. He is neither vanquished by the hidden evil nor convinced to flee the aftermath, a narrative decision in keeping with the primary function of the film as an action movie satire. Nonetheless, Angel’s arc is compelled by archetypal components integral to folk horror.
Of course, folk horror only works if the setting an outsider enters is sufficiently conceived, and in this regard, Sandford Village does not disappoint. Filmed primarily in Wells, Somerset, a mediaeval town nestled near the Mendip Hills, Sandford bears all the outward appearance of a quaint and rustic abode. Rolling green hills and farmland, stone walls lining streets and alleyways, and a town centre complete with a bubbling fountain and cobblestones. It is the visual opposite of the dull blue and grey mess of concrete and glass that is Wright’s representation of London. Sending the point even further home is the needle drop of The Kinks’ ‘We Are The Village Green Preservation Society‘ while Angel is out on a run, everyone shouting out welcomes to the new addition. Yet, just as the cheery song hides within it a tongue-in-cheek critique of rural British convention, Sandford is merely a gilded trap waiting to spring, a narrative strand integral to folk horror.
Wright executes the transition from welcoming to lethal in two major ways. The first is to gradually incorporate more and more prominent images of conservative traditionalism into the film’s imagery. A prime example is a church near the centre of town. Wright uses Wells’ existing architecture to his advantage, capitalizing on how the spire towers over everything else below it, an explicit motif on the violent fundamentalism thriving around it. The church rises above Angel as he chases a shoplifter all around town, and looms behind the smouldering remains of George Merchant’s mansion, surveying every action like Sauron’s distant cousin. Narratively, this progression culminates in a church fair, taking us to the hallowed grounds for the first time. During the events, typo-prone reporter Tim Messenger is slain by a fallen chunk of the spire, pushed down onto him by a hooded killer. The implication is clear: a man harbouring information that may reveal Sadnford’s secret is killed by the physical embodiment of tradition.
His second approach is to call on the juxtaposition of Sandford’s natural beauty with harbingers of doom, a directorial choice straight out of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (UK, Piers Haggard, 1971). In Haggard’s film, an 18th-century farmer discovers a mysterious skull in his field, a find that progressively gives way to a larger violent cult tale. It’s simple to draw a line from The Blood on Satan’s Claw to Hot Fuzz with that in mind. Wright stages brutal still lives in otherwise innocuously pretty areas. A bloody car crash and decapitated heads along a scenic route. The previously mentioned Merchant explosion in the midst of a bucolic neighbourhood. Even the otherwise romantic castle ruins become a hotbed for cult activity. What this achieves is a pointed curdling of the pastoral palette, joining the throng of folk horror films that zero in on such settings to reveal that our cultural assumptions about the beauty and peace of rural life conceal the often corrupted and dark undercurrents that go along with aggressive traditionalism.
The Neighbourhood Watch
For Hot Fuzz, the perils of such themes and concepts are personified by the members of Sandford’s Neighbourhood Watch Association (NWA). Composed of older, white, Sandfordians, the NWA’s singular focus is to maintain Sandford’s ‘rustic aesthetic’ so it can continue winning ‘Village of the Year’. What that actuates to is a shadowy and deadly conspiracy to remove any people or structures smack of an aesthetic or value set different than the NWA’s guiding principles. Initially, this plays for laughs. Angel is baffled by the NWA’s rage-filled obsession with the living statue who has decided to perform in the town square or their concern over the ‘hoodies’ that might return and besmirch their image. Yet, with every repeated utterance of the catchphrase of their actions for ‘the greater good’, and the mounting body count, Wright transforms this group of ageing busybodies into a near-geriatric hit squad.
Visually, Wright connects the NWA to British folklore and horror by pulling on iconic images that have popped up throughout the genre’s histories. When Angel visits an NWA meeting, they sit at a giant, round, table with ornate, black, high-back chairs that seems both to nod at Arthurian mythology and satanic cult imagery. Paired with a lighting choice that throws everything beyond the table into utter darkness while a spotlight helps the members glow, it is the first clear indicator that something is off. Taking the hint a step further, Wright casts the previously mentioned The Wicker Man star Edward Woodward as the Civilian Liaison of the NWA. Even as Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton) is presented as a red herring killer, Wright amplifies the bloodiness around Sandford before returning to the round table when Angel discovers a midnight NWA meeting amidst castle ruins. That image is suggestive of sequence in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, one that places cult activity within the decaying remnants of a bygone era. Therefore, the NWA joins the folk horror lineage of crazed, rural, sects.
Nevertheless, it is the NWA’s foundational beliefs that provide the most direct link to folk horror’s underguirdings. Each folk horror film mentioned in this piece, as well as a seemingly endless list that includes classics Witchfinder General (1968) and Robin Redbreast (1970), fixate on the battle between old, often Pagan, beliefs, and modern Christianity. As outlined above, Hot Fuzz positions Christianity as a major symbol of traditionalism within Sandford and the NWA’s members and pits it against the modern, less-rigid view of society that Angel and Danny come to represent. Here, Wright uses the folk horror structure but deftly toys with genre tradition to critique a vision of violently oppressive English conservatism. The NWA murders their neighbours for being a “bad actor”; planning to build a new shopping centre; or even for choosing to move and take their talents elsewhere. These are comical motivations, yes, but they are an iteration of a society that wants so desperately to maintain a vision of outdated aestheticism that they will resort to slaughter. Accordingly, the NWA transcends its comical attributes to emerge in turn as an encapsulation of the horrors incarnate in tyrannical convention.
Hot Fuzz may not be folk horror in a strictly classical sense, but Wright and his collaborators clearly utilize the genre as a guiding collection of tropes, archetypes, and themes to build their story upon. Subsequently, it emerges as an exemplar of what happens when filmmakers and writers incorporate careful genre study and film history into their horror or horror-adjacent projects. No, such an approach is not a prerequisite for making great horror, as plenty of modern films from Us (Jordan Peele, 2019) to Host (Rob Savage, 2020) prove otherwise. All it does affirm, though, is that there is a continuity of genre that blends successful elements with an eye to reinvention and commentary. For Hot Fuzz, the unlikely merger of action satire and folk horror results in a bloody good time overflowing with shrewd storytelling and vibrant filmmaking.
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