Unless you have zero interest in horror history whatsoever, don’t be put off by the running time — three hours and 15 minutes — of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. Think of it not as an extended-play documentary, but as an incredibly detailed visual encyclopaedia instead.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which just premiered at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival, was written and directed by Kier-La Janisse, whose many credits across various horror-related platforms include the excellent 2012 book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. Janisse is an expert not just in horror films, but the ways in which we watch horror and how the genre shapes culture. She brings that vast knowledge to Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched with great success.
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Janisse’s doc is very carefully thought out, divided into chapters that take the viewer through — as the title suggests — a lot of history, though it’s not just the history of folk horror cinema, but folk horror as it appears in genre literature and even earlier in places like fairy tales, ballads, and folktales. The sheer mountain of material is aided by a seemingly endless trove of film clips and other artistic touches, including animated collages crafted by acclaimed artist and filmmaker Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World) and atmospheric music by Jim Williams (Possessor, A Field in England, Kill List).
The first chapter makes sure you have a firm grasp of what folk horror actually is, thanks to a diverse array of talking heads (cinema scholars, authors, filmmakers, etc.) who all bring their expertise to the topic, explaining variously that it’s “the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny,” “the return of the repressed,” “being lost in ancient landscapes,” “strange things found in fields,” “pagan conspiracies,” “the darkness of children’s play,” and the unnerving suggestion that “what if the old ways were right?”
From there, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched takes a deep dive into what it dubs “the unholy trinity,” the three films generally regarded as the best-known examples of folk horror: 1968’s Witchfinder General, 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and 1973’s The Wicker Man. British films and TV productions get a lot of shine in the documentary’s first quarter, but again it’s not just a parade of clips (though there are so many clips). Care is taken to contextualize how each title emphasises the genre’s trademark “friction between the present and the past,” something that was also a cultural and political undercurrent in 1970s Britain; urban expansion at the time meant that “strange things found in fields” were being unearthed as part of construction projects — bringing vibes of films like 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit nearly to life. The doc also touches on the concept of “psychogeography,” the idea that a place has a psychic footprint that lingers even after its original inhabitants have moved on, and explores British-specific artifacts that continue to shape folk horror tales, like standing stones.
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But the film — which devotes an entire chapter to witchcraft and cinema that almost begs to be expanded into its own standalone doc — doesn’t limit its focus to just one part of the world. America and Australia’s versions of folk horror get their due; the American segment looks at “weird Christians” and cults, Appalachian and “backwoods” traditions, and movies like Candyman, Wisconsin Death Trip, and Children of the Corn — as well as the misleading “Indian burial ground” trope and Hollywood’s sensationalised take on voodoo.
From there, the doc expands even more, investigating folk horror films from Japan, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, and beyond — with a final segment touching on recent works like Midsommar and Border. Thoughts are shared as to why folk horror is enjoying a revival right now, and the fact that the internet has made us hyper-connected yet isolated, and further removed from community traditions, is a solid theory that’s advanced here.
Even after three-plus hours of information and spooky eye candy, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched will leave you wanting more — but that’s not a knock against it. Rather, it’ll absolutely make you want to start watching all the films it discusses in such reverent terms so that you can get lost in your own world of pagan conspiracies, eerie artifacts, harvest rituals, and dark ancient knowledge.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror premiered at 2021 SXSW and does not yet have a release date.