Think about an isolated place where cellphone reception is spotty and where signs of life are far and few between; a place so flat, so free of topographical landmarks that it's impossible to tell which way is which; a place chock-full of dangerous machinery and razor-sharp hand tools; a place where no one, except for a few dairy cows, can hear you scream.
While peaceful, there’s something undeniably sinister about vast expanses of rural farmland. Maybe it’s the quiet, maybe it’s the cornfields, maybe it’s something else entirely. Regardless of what exactly it is that renders farm-studded landscapes unsettling, bucolic agricultural settings have longed provided a particularly effective backdrop for horror movies.
In fact, when it comes to nightmare-inducing architectural forms, nothing quite beats a dilapidated farmhouse standing alone at the end of a lonely dirt road. But seriously, pretty much every single movie character that moves into a creaky old farmhouse in the country to find "peace and quiet" winds up finding the exact opposite: rowdy wraiths, superstitious locals and a whole lot of bumping in the night.
“Isolation is definitely one of the first things,” Rebekah McKendry, formerly of Fangoria magazine, explained to Modern Farmer regarding the inherent scariness of farmland. “The idea that there’s nothing surrounding you, that there’s no help, that there’s no safety, no buildings to hide yourself in.”
Just like filmmakers have long employed rural locales to spook moviegoers, enterprising farmers have capitalized on the public’s fear of remote agricultural settings (especially after dark). Haunted seasonal diversions including corn mazes, haunted hayrides and sprawling, multi-attraction “fear farms” are a hugely lucrative form of agri-tourism that help to bring additional income to struggling rural communities. Folks who wouldn’t normally set foot on a working farm will drive hours to visit a farm that’s been colonized by zombies.
If a drive out to the countryside isn't in the cards this Halloween, here are eight great agri-themed and farm-based horror movies worth hunkering down with. City slickers, beware.
'Children of the Corn' (1984)
While one of the lesser (some would say the worst) of the many Stephen King adaptations, “The Children of the Corn,” a 1984 production that's spawned about 900 sequels, is largely regarded as the “Citizen Kane” of farm-y horror films. A delightful yarn concerning an 18-and-under fundamentalist death cult that’s gone about eliminating all adults who live in — or pass through — the Nebraska farming community of Gatlin, it’s perhaps the first movie to make cornfields appear straight-up terrifying. Beware He Who Walks Behind the Rows …
Director Fritz Kiersch, who grew up in rural upstate New York, told Modern Farmer in 2013: “It’s the things around us that we take for granted. The common, the ordinary. It’s as you walk down the street or a country lane or you’re out in the woods alone, it’s the things that we’re not seeing that creates our fear.”
He adds: “I didn’t know much about corn other than running around upstate New York, which is more of a wheat producer, but the corn fields I was in [they] showed me that you couldn’t see. You lost your visibility. And when I went to Iowa and Kansas and really stood in the fields, I realized, ‘These things need to come alive.’”
'The Curse' (1987)
At some point between “Stand by Me” and joining the ranks of Starship Enterprise, child actor-turned-geek icon Wil Wheaton starred in this tale — an H.P. Lovecraft-based tale, no less — of a Tennessee farm that experiences some, well, difficulties, after a slime-oozing meteorite crash lands on the property.
As one would expect, it doesn’t take long for said slime to pollute the water table, at which point things on the farm take a turn for the weird. While the farm’s crops continue to grow in even greater abundance than before, the produce is just a wee bit off despite its healthy appearance. How about a farm-fresh salad of puss-seeping lettuce and blood-squirting tomatoes? Maggot-filled apples, anyone? Soon, the farm animals become violent and, soon after that, the farmer’s wife transforms into a fire poker-swinging, wart-covered she-beast. As any dutiful teenage son would do after his mother drinks water contaminated by space aliens and turns into a raging monster, young Zack Crane (Wheaton) is forced to lock up Ma in the fruit cellar. In the end, an agent from the Tennessee Valley Authority saves the day.
And on the topic of rotten tomatoes, “The Curse” isn’t exactly beloved by armchair critics despite being a staple of video store horror sections during the late 1980s. Actor David Keith, himself a Knoxville native and son of a TVA worker, directed.
'Let's Scare Jessica to Death' (1971)
If anything, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” once again proves that, in the world of horror films, frazzled and psychologically fragile city folk should avoid rural solitude as a means of recuperation at all costs. Farmhouses spell trouble with a capital “T.”
Buoyed by a convincing lead performance from Zohra Lampert as the just-released-from-a-mental-institution Jessica and some groovy early '70s facial hair, the backdrop of this surreal, slow-burning thriller is an apple farm situated on a sleepy island off the coast of Connecticut — an island that’s home to a beguiling redheaded lady-drifter who also happens to be a vampiric 19th century bride. (Or it all in Jessica’s head?)
The fact that poor, paranoia-racked Jessica is tormented by a husband-seducing hippie vampire on a rural farm on an island with sporadic ferry service only elevates the claustrophobic, trapped-in-the-middle-of-nowhere terror. It’s a rural horror movie double-whammy. Relatively obscure but beloved by horror aficionados, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” serves as an intriguing companion film to the game-changing “Night of the Living Dead,” released just three years earlier.
'The Messengers' (2007)
Poor Kristen Stewart … the girl seems to get herself involved in supernatural mumbo-jumbo no matter where she moves to "start fresh," as they say.
In this pre-“Twilight” offering, Stewart joins Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller as the Solomon family, a Chicago clan that’s escaped the city and taken up residence on a North Dakota farm to grow sunflowers and heal the psychic wounds of the past. Go figure that the creaky old farmhouse they’ve just moved into is teeming with the restless ghosts of the home’s previous occupants who were (also go figure) brutally murdered by a mysterious assailant.
Largely derivative haunted house fare with a few genuine scares and an atmospheric rural twist (pitchforks used as murder weapons, marauding crows, zero cellphone reception, ominous fields that stretch on for eternity), “The Messengers" was critically lambasted yet did well enough financially to warrant a direct-to-video prequel. If anything, this Sam Raimi-produced clunker serves as proof that if you move into a decrepit farmhouse and that mysterious dark stain on the bedroom wallpaper keeps on reappearing now matter how hard you scrub it away, you should probably vacate the premises tout de suite.
'Motel Hell' (1980)
Where to even begin with this gleefully ridiculous gem that’s played just as much for guffaws as it for scares? The road-blocking fake cows scene? The seemingly never-ending climatic chainsaw duel? The creative use of potato sacks? The godawful gurgling sounds coming from the "secret garden?" The shameful dying confession — “My meat … I used ... preservatives” — of fiendish smoked meat entrepreneur Farmer Vincent Smith?
There’s a lot to love about “Motel Hell” and even Roger Ebert, rarely one to enthusiastic endorse horror movies, gave this low-budget “sleazoid” treasure a semi-glowing review: “What 'Motel Hell' brings to this genre is the refreshing sound of laughter. This movie is disgusting, of course; it's impossible to satirize this material, I imagine, without presenting the subject matter you're satirizing. But 'Motel Hell' is not nearly as gruesome as the films it satirizes, and it finds the right stylistic note for its central characters, who are simple, cheerful, smiling, earnest, and resourceful cannibals.”
And before you dig in, don’t forget that “it takes all kind of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters …”
Within the already niche world of rural and farm-based horror films, there exists an entire sub-category of movies devoted to demonic scarecrows. Most of them — “Scarecrow Slayer,” “Scarecrow Gone Wild,” “Psycho Scarecrow,” “Dark Harvest 3: Scarecrow” etc. — are terrible.
An exception is “Scarecrows," a gory, intense and legitimately scary B-movie with the tagline: “Trespassers will be violated” — that’s garnered a considerable cult following since its initial release in 1988. Part of the fun of “Scarecrows” is that the victims being stalked and slaughtered by a small army of animated decoys are actually the bad guys — a band of bank-robbing, plane-hijacking mercenaries who make the unfortunate decision to make an emergency landing in an isolated corn field populated by homicidal, hay-stuffed mannequins. This is one killer scarecrow flick that kinda sorta has a brain.
And while not technically a killer scarecrow movie, the thrilling opening scene of “Jeepers Creepers 2” features a nightmarish hay-man.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974)
While “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its numerous sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes have nothing to really do with farming, it was one of the first films to inject murder and mayhem into an otherwise pastoral landscape populated by barns, lonely back roads, and fields that stretch on forever. And most importantly, much like “TCM” director Tobe Hooper later did with the suburban tract home in “Poltergeist,” this gritty 1974 shocker transformed the humble American farmhouse into a place of pure malevolence. Thanks to Leatherface and the rest of the deranged Sawyer clan, Texan farmhouses have never been quite the same.
As for the actual farmhouse that the hugely influential — and pro-vegetarian — low-budget masterpiece was filmed in, the turn-of-the-century Victorian kit house was built atop Quick Hill in the now-bustling Austin suburb of Round Rock. In 1998, the home, in a serious state of decay, was deconstructed and painstakingly rebuilt and restored 60 miles west of its original site (now a massive planned development) on the grounds of the Antlers Hotel, a historic riverside resort compound in Llano County. Nowadays, the former “Chainsaw House” is home to the Grand Central Café, an eatery (formerly the Junction House and before that, Four Bears Restaurant) where popular nibbles on the human flesh-free menu include whisky shrimp dip and chicken fried steak. Upstairs in the Club Car Lounge, TCM-themed drink specials include Leatherface Lemonade.
'The Wicker Man' (1973)
Mystery, suspense, intrigue, maypole dancing. “The Wicker Man,” a British cult classic co-starring the late, great Christopher Lee in what he considered to be his best film, truly has it all.
Sergeant Howie, a prudish yet persistent officer with the Scotland Yard, is summoned to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. As Sgt. Howie soon discovers, the residents of Summerisle, an island reliant on an unlikely agricultural economy with apples serving as the main export, aren’t being entirely forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding Rowan's disappearance. And as it turns out, the folksy, friendly (maybe a bit too friendly) islanders are pagans — much to the horror of devoutly Christian Sgt. Howie — ruled by freewheeling agrarian and Cher impersonator Lord Summerisle. As a mortified Howie combs the island for any trace of Rowan, he uncovers a startling revelation: the island’s last apple harvest failed and the only way to appease the gods and to ensure successful future harvests is to offer up a sacrifice … a human sacrifice.
(Shamefully) remade in 2008 with Nicholas Cage and an apiarian twist, the “Wicker Man" is weird, wicked and immensely entertaining. It’s the essential Halloween film.