Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Horror as Folk: Clearcut (1991) and Questions of Identity

Because I accidentally watched a disc out of order, we’ll be skipping over Wilczyca and Lokis in the All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set (for now) and instead tackling this meditative Canadian thriller from Polish director Ryszard Bugajski.

Clearcut is an interesting entry into the contents of this set, and one of the ones that I was most excited about seeing for the first time. And I’m far from alone. The inclusion of Clearcut into the All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set probably single-handedly got more eyes on it than the film has enjoyed in its entire run up ‘til now – at least, in the United States. (I’m told that it is a, perhaps surprising, cult hit in Germany, of all places.)

Interesting in part because Clearcut is not really a horror film, by most standards, and to the extent that it is, it’s operating in the key of something like Deliverance or Rituals – already somewhat fringe cases. In spite of elements that at least thematically transform the film’s antagonist (?) Arthur into a spiritual entity, this is a relatively straightforward crime thriller, with more than usual philosophical concerns on its mind.

On the surface, these concerns are about land rights, colonialism, environmentalism, and even racial and ethnic identity – more on that in a moment – and it certainly has many things to say on all those subjects. But beneath the trappings of a conflict between a greedy logging company and First Nations people in rural Canada, there is also a clear critique of pacifism.

“In North America, people have become too attached to pacifist ideas,” the director told the magazine Kino in 1992. “Meanwhile, sometimes a war in which we defend values can be right. In Clearcut, I wanted to show that ideology which does not take life into consideration is worthless.”

Unfortunately, the film’s themes of land rights, what kind of protests actually get results, and whether or not violence is an acceptable solution to oppression have perhaps never been more topical than in our current political climate, where states pass laws allowing people to kill protestors, pipelines get greenlit that will clearcut large swaths of otherwise protected land, and we still have arguments about whether it’s okay to punch Nazis.

And don’t get me wrong, Clearcut is a bit of a marvel, thanks in no small part to a show-stopping central performance from Graham Greene, who plays Arthur – the film’s villain and hero simultaneously, somehow – with such conviction, unexpected humor, and dynamism that it would have made him a star if he were white, and if it had happened in a movie that anyone had seen. Even as it is, Greene might be the most successful indigenous star in American cinema, and he has been quoted as saying that Clearcut is his favorite thing that he’s ever done. It’s a good choice.

Clearcut is also interesting because of what its inclusion in this set says about the film, and the events that take place within it. As I said, there’s a suggestion in the picture that Arthur is a spiritual entity. An elder in the tribe tells white lawyer Peter Maguire the story of Wisakedjak, a sort of Algonquin trickster figure, implying that Arthur may be such a being. (I am oversimplifying quite a bit here, but we have ground to cover, and I don’t know a lot about this particular branch of lore.)

Beyond that, however, there is nothing to distinguish Clearcut as a horror film at all, save for a heavy sense, even from the earliest scenes, that something terrible and inevitable is about to happen – or is happening already. The film’s logline, “The violence has begun,” sets the stage for that, and it’s entirely reasonable to suggest that the violence in question, the terrible and inevitable thing, is the destruction of the forests at the hands of the logging company, not anything that Arthur sets out to do.

And yet, Clearcut is not merely in a horror collection, it is in a folk horror collection. Which begs the question, “What makes this film folk horror?” The obvious answer is that story about Wisakedjak, and the suggestions that Arthur is some kind of supernatural force. But would that have been enough, if those things were not couched in the traditions of a perceived “out group,” in this case those of Canada’s indigenous peoples?

Obviously, these are questions we can’t answer, but they are questions that are bound to circle around us as we consider Clearcut, and its inclusion in All the Haunts Be Ours. Who counts as “folk,” for the purposes of folk horror, and what does that suggest about the people who are doing the classifying? These questions of identity are an important undercurrent in Clearcut, which doesn’t necessarily offer any easy answers. Indeed, if anything, our journey through this set of Blu-rays has, perhaps, further clouded our idea of what a folk horror film is, rather than clarifying it. And maybe that’s for the best.

What we can say for certain is that it’s good that Clearcut is in All the Haunts Be Ours, because it has exposed the film to people who otherwise might not have seen it – myself included, as I hadn’t so much as heard of Clearcut before it was announced as part of this set. And even if Clearcut isn’t folk horror, it joins Viy and Eyes of Fire as one of the best movies in the set so far. And after all, if broadening our horizons isn’t maybe the best thing we can ask for from a collection like this, I’m not sure what is.