Fear is timeless. From even before we had words to describe it, man has huddled around the warm fires of our protective hovels and made monsters of the noises in the dark. For all the romanticization of frilly skirts and haughty language, people hundreds of years ago were just as afraid of the creeping terrors that lurk beyond the candlelight. Probably more so, since that rustle in the leaves could likely be a hungry pack of wolves, and good luck fighting that off with a flintlock pistol and candlelight.
Unfortunately, good period piece horror is hard to come by. It seems most people would rather watch a Mr. Darcy-type woo an Elizabeth Bennet-type over the course of a hundred misunderstandings and flowery speeches. Bleh. The fools. So, when a good horror period piece comes around to show us that the past isn’t all funny clothes and fainting over social faux pas, it’s worth celebrating.
I first saw the trailer for The Witch as a preview before the recent film adaptation of Macbeth. I saw it with a bunch of people that were super excited for Macbeth, so I was the only horror fan in the group. After the trailer, there was a tangible tense energy among my friends. The Witch looks dark, unique, and terrifying. A good period piece’s terror should both reflect the time it takes place in and be enhanced by it. The struggle of a small frontier farm mixed against the terror of an untamed forest makes The Witch a chilling snapshot of 1600’s dogmatic fear. On the border between Puritanism and Paganism, reality and superstition blend.
So to honor this release, here are 9 other Timeless Period Piece Horror Films:
9) Sauna (2008):
In 1595 and the wake of the Russo-Swedish War, two brothers are on an expedition to mark the new border between the two countries. Amidst the muddy swamp and barren trees, they come across a meager village with a mysterious sauna. Haunted by past misdeeds, the line between reality and fiction is blurred as their souls are tested.
Yes, that kind of sauna. I doubt anyone watching this film would know beforehand that A) saunas are actually hundreds of years old and B) they have ancient, spiritual traditions. With medieval Finland as the backdrop, the story of Sauna is as much about change as it is atonement. Shifting borders, beliefs, and even Eerik’s failing eyesight paint a picture of a world that is changing too fast. The friction between past and present is made tangible by the spirits of the sauna, reminding us that guilt remains even after the past has been buried.
8) The Burrowers (2008):
As if the Old West frontier wasn’t troubling enough, what with all the pillaging natives, rapey cavalrymen, bandits, dehydration, and rattlesnakes. Now, terrifying nocturnal monsters with a taste for human flesh want to bury you alive and turn you into soup. Just great. Set in 1879, a motley crew consisting of an Irishman, former slave, young teenager, and pair of Indian fighters (as in people that fight Native Americans, not Native American warriors) set off to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of a frontier family. They soon find out that it wasn’t the Sioux but rather the previously mentioned monsters called “Burrowers.”
Only the dwindling Native American tribe of the Ute know how to successfully fight the monsters. The Burrowers uses the racial tensions and environmental destruction of the time to deliver a dark message of cooperation and understanding. It isn’t a “hold hands and sing a song” story, opting instead for a “unite or die” message. Hell, the Burrowers wouldn’t even be eating us if we didn’t kill all the buffalo! It’s a classic tale of mankind destroying itself with greed but with badass monsters.
7) Crimson Peak (2015):
If I’ve learned anything from movies over the years, it’s “don’t kill a wronged Victorian woman in a mansion.” Do you want vengeful ghosts? Because that’s how you get vengeful ghosts.
Crimson Peak is a stunning and macabre look at the turn of the 20th century. The dilapidated Allerdale Hall is a vision of faded glory, rotting away in equal measures with the family’s standing. With industrialization on the rise, self-made men are replacing the nobility at the top of the food chain. The declining Sharpe family must parasitize the successful Cushings just to maintain a little while longer. This temporary act of selfish preservation gives rise to eternally tortured (and gorgeously designed) spirits. Even if you don’t care for the love story, this rendition of the industrialization meta narrative regarding the shifting hierarchy is a visual masterpiece.