Upon its release in 1954, the movie-musical Brigadoon flopped decisively to the tune of a 1.5 million dollar loss, with critics decrying it as “flat” and “mechanical”. On paper, Brigadoon was the perfect recipe for another classic feel-good American musical: it starred Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, two of the biggest dancers in Hollywood; it was directed by Vincente Minnelli of Meet Me in St Louis (1944) fame, and it was adapted from a Lerner and Lowe musical. So where did it go wrong? The problem is simple – everyone involved thought they had a cheery musical on their hands, but what they didn’t realise is that they were making a horror film.
Specifically, Brigadoon is folk horror. Far from the themes of romance and family that characterise the American musical, folk horror explores the dark side of communities and the lengths that they will go to in order to preserve their traditions (think Edgar Wright’s 2007 Hot Fuzz). Folk horror’s critique of the cult of tradition also means that it’s often a very politically subversive genre, with recent examples like Midsommar subtly illustrating the links between folk religion and Nazism.
On the surface, Brigadoon appears to be nothing more than a deeply conservative, confused, and often dull film. It follows American tourist Tommy Albright as he stumbles across a mysterious village in the mists of the Scottish Highlands. He quickly discovers that Brigadoon is unlike any place he’s seen before, stuck as it is in the 18th century and only reappearing for one day every hundred years. What’s more, not one of the inhabitants can ever leave, or the entire village and everyone in it will disappear forever. To any normal person, this sounds like a curse, but to the inhabitants of Brigadoon it is “The Miracle”, and indeed they did it to themselves on purpose.
Put simply, Brigadoon is a Christo-fascist cult. Its people have isolated themselves from the rest of the world because of a belief that Scotland had been lured away from the teachings of God. Wanting to protect against “all the evils that might come […] from the outside world”, they are deeply suspicious of outsiders, only allowing them to stay in Brigadoon if they intend to marry into it (much like Midsommar’s Hårga). They also gladly avoid social progress, expressing gratitude that they will never be in any century “long enough to be touched by it”. Brigadoon is stuck in a world that is pre- women’s rights, civil rights, any kind of rights, and all explicitly by design.
This may well be horrifying to a modern audience, but what makes Brigadoon a true folk horror is the fact that the inhabitants tell on themselves. The de-facto cult leader, Mr. Lundie, explains to Tommy that witches (“horrible, destructive women”) were the ones bringing the outside evil to Brigadoon – “it didna matter that they were not real sorcerers because you and I know there’s no such thing”. It was not a fear of sorcery that led them to this then, but a fear of “horrible, destructive women”, and it’s not hard to infer here that what he actually meant was progressive, educated women. Even more ironically, when Mr. Lundie later goes to comfort the one normal inhabitant of Brigadoon, he says, “you’ll never find peace by hatin’, lad. It only shuts you off from the world.” In the cult leader’s own words, Brigadoon shuts itself off from the world out of hate. On one level, these details betray a shocking lack of awareness on the part of the creators, but on another, they transform the film from a bad musical with icky politics into a satirical folk horror masterpiece.
When viewed from this lens, suddenly even those elements which didn’t quite work and were singled out for criticism upon its release become coherent stylistic features that contribute to the film’s overall message. Its mechanical nature, the over-the-top fake sets, the colourful costumes, the big brash musical numbers that somehow fall flat – it’s all hollow. Just as Brigadoon presents itself as a quaint, idyllic village with traditional values, so too does the film present itself as another peppy Golden-Age American musical. “We’re all happy,” insists Mr. Lundie, five minutes after arguing with a man who claimed that Brigadoon was a jail cell to him.
The most terrifying moment of all comes when one inhabitant, Harry Beaton, tries to escape Brigadoon. From his perspective (and the perspectives of the other villagers) it has only been two days since “The Miracle”, and yet he would rather die and take everybody with him than live there another day. The other villagers hunt him through the forest with torches, singing a terrifying chant-like song. At the very least, they intend to imprison him more literally than he already is, but one line implies that they even intend to murder him: “I’ll go down to the creek, and by God, if I see him I’ll throw him in”. It is only by sheer contrivance that the inhabitants are not put in the position of having to murder him, and, far from mourning him upon his accidental death, they pronounce him “ungrateful before God” and hide the body. It is a genuinely chilling scene that would not be out of place in The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973), and it is here that Brigadoon’s façade comes crumbling down as we see exactly what happens to those who would defy the cult.
Brigadoon is more than a forgettable failure; it is a sharp, scary examination of the fascist impulse to romanticise the past. It asks the question: what does it actually look like when we “reject modernity, embrace tradition”, as the popular Alt-Right meme goes? It’s no wonder that the film has been largely forgotten and dismissed, given that it was released well before before the folk horror boom in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, but now, nearly three quarters of a century later, perhaps it’s time to leave authorial intent behind and recognise Brigadoon for the dirty movie that it is.