Folk horror describes a sub-genre of horror cinema rooted in folklore and fairytale. At one end of the spectrum stands the graphic horrors of Midsommar, on the other the environmental haunting of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Closer to The Witch end of the spectrum, in fact, even subtler and more ambiguous, is A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree, a folk horror tale from Irish filmmaking couple Adam Mann and Skye Mann. Elm is a modern film steeped in Celtic lore and legend, set in an Ireland where mostly forgotten stories still resonate in fragments, just enough to offer a caution to those seeking answers to the unanswerable.
Adapted by the Manns from Skye Mann’s own novella of the same name, Elm stars James Healy-Meaney as the recently bereaved Padraig, who hires local carpenter John (Gerry Wade) to teach him to build a coffin for his wife. Most of Elm is a two-hander between Padraig and John, with long stretches of silence between them as Padraig desultorily planes blocks of elm wood in John’s shop. He’s going through the motions, obviously suffering through something, but John only pries into why Padraig wants a coffin when it is, perhaps, too late. Early on, John offers Padraig a book about Celtic folklore, and though Padraig at first resists, he eventually begins reading about how the Celts worshipped trees and believed they were fonts of various forms of magic.
This is not a horror movie of jump scares and bloody scenes, the horror comes from the “folk” part of the description, from the sense of a past which resists burying, and of unknowable things lurking just beyond the edges of modern life. Anyone even remotely familiar with any culture’s legends knows not to go talking to stuff in the forest—John even warns Padraig to run if he hears “someone laughing in the woods other than you”. But Padraig, mired in grief, and maybe even guilt, doesn’t heed the warnings, carrying out a spell one night to resurrect his dead wife.
It goes about as well as you think, but Elm never sinks into hysterics or histrionics. It is consistently a subtle film, relying on the performances of Healy-Meaney and Wade to carry the film, bolstered by beautiful black-and-white cinematography from Conor Tobin, and a creepy score from Carlos Solares to enhance the mood. And this is a very moody film, it’s all about the atmosphere and the things not being said, or, in some cases, being whispered just at the edge of hearing in the wind. The use of sound in this film is spectacular, particularly how the wind rustling in tree leaves can be everything from soothing to ominous.
Elm runs an incredibly tight 75 minutes, yet the Manns—who act as their own editors—never feel rushed in their storytelling. There is an interlude in the middle of the film in which a local pub owner (M.J. Sullivan) tells a story about a star-crossed couple from the clan days of Ireland that has no immediate bearing on anything except as perhaps a dig at Padraig and the circumstances of his wife’s death—never clear, but he is so consumed by guilt and grief you have to wonder—and to illustrate that old adage, every legend is a cautionary tale.
For all that Elm makes room for asides and long stories, it never feels meandering. From the moment Padraig knocks on John’s door, everything is driving toward the climax, even if the road is sometimes partially obscured. Elm isn’t interested in spelling everything out, no one ever delivers an emotional monologue clarifying their reasoning, or defining exactly what’s happening with the trees. There is a certain assumption of the mythic, and everything falls into place around that. A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree is a great entry point for anyone curious about folk horror but put off by the more graphic examples of the genre or interested in contemporary Irish cinema (which is excellent and so much more than the Hollywood-ized productions we get in North America every few years). It’s a moody, broody film about grief and magic and regret, with one of the most haunting endings in recent memory.
This review was published during the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of actors.