Dark August (USA, 1976)
One of the best aspects of the streaming era is stumbling across obscure films that turn out to be exactly my kind of thing. A year or two ago, Shudder acquired a whole bunch of lesser-known folk horror films, and Dark August is one of the highlights of this selection.
While folk horror is usually seen as a peculiarly British genre, America has produced some fine examples. From Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer stories to novels like Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, TED Klein’s The Ceremonies, and Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, as well as films such as Eyes of Fire and The Witch, there is a strong but often overlooked American folk horror movement that has thrived for generations. Dark August certainly deserves a place in this subgenre. But is it just a cinematic curiosity or does it stand up as a horror film?
Dark August is currently available on Shudder in the UK.
Sal Devito is a man with a supernatural target on his back. Over the course of the first act, we gradually learn that he is a visual artist from New York City who has relocated to rural Vermont to be with his girlfriend. Shortly after arriving, however, Sal was involved in a car accident, accidentally killing a little girl who ran out into the road. As if that weren’t bad enough, the girl’s grandfather is a vengeful soul, and a practitioner of a very witchy kind of folk magic.
After experiencing inexplicable pains, seizures and accidents, not to mention seeing a sinister hooded figure following him, Sal begins to wonder if the grandfather has placed a curse on him. This is all but confirmed when a friend gives Sal a tarot reading, although the reading also promises that a woman will come to his aid.
This woman turns out to be a notorious local psychic, who starts offering Sal guidance and protective rituals. As the curse escalates, so do the attempts from Sal and his spiritual guide to counter it. But who will triumph in this battle of magical traditions?
Popular interest in occultism waxes and wanes. There was something of a peak in the 1970s, with ancient aliens, pyramid power, ghosts, and witchcraft permeating not only entertainment but the culture in general. I remember perfectly unremarkable friends of my parents taking Uri Geller seriously, and cheerfully having their palms read or visiting tarot readers. It was a weird time.
Dark August reflects this weirdness better than most media. It might seem contrived that Sal so quickly accepts that he is cursed, or that he seeks advice from a tarot reader and a ritual magician. But, having lived through those times, it seems utterly plausible to me.
In line with this, Dark August presents its occult elements oddly accurately. Whether or not you believe in the efficacy of magic, it’s an undeniable truth that some people practice it. The magic portrayed in the film very much reflects real magical practices. More impressively, it shows two very different, arguably conflicting approaches to magic.
The folk magic practised by the grandfather is a classic form of sympathetic magic. He uses a wax poppet to create a connection to Sal, then what is variously described as a demon or thought form to torment his victim. This echoes any number of folk traditions rooted in witchcraft.
In contrast, the psychic Sal consults uses magic from the Golden Dawn tradition. This is a more regimented, less intuitive approach, using formulaic rituals. While some of what we see is a mishmash, this is the only time I recall seeing the Lesser Pentagram Ritual on screen. Other elements seem drawn from Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self Defence. The only other film I’ve seen even attempt such occult accuracy is A Dark Song.
None of this will matter to most viewers, but those with an interest in magic should find it refreshing.
Dark August is a film very much of its time. The combination of slow pacing, primitive synth soundtrack, and rough production values could only have come from an independent horror film of the 1970s. Its tone is low-key, naturalistic, and weird, with the supernatural elements presented directly but without fanfare. The fight scenes and fake blood won’t fool anyone. At times, it almost feels like a TV movie. While I see none of these as strikes against the film, they may not be to the tastes of modern horror fans.
Despite its rough edges and well-trodden subject matter, Dark August is compelling viewing. This is a straightforward tale that unfolds slowly but organically. Nothing is overexplained, but neither is it obfuscated. It’s simply an engaging piece of storytelling.
The dialogue is particularly strong, connecting us with the everyday lives of the characters as much as the supernatural menace they face. The performances are exceptional for a low-budget horror film, with JJ Barry’s turn as Sal being a particular highlight. Really, the only let down is the ending, which feels like a hastily tacked-on afterthought and fails to match the tone of the rest of the film.
While Dark August might not be the scariest film you’ll see this October, it’s certainly unusual enough to be worth your time.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!