Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, 2021.
Directed by Kier-La Janisse.
Woodlands Dark Days and Days Bewitched is the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror, from the 1960s to today.
There are few major film genres, if any, as stratified as horror, such that even the most diffuse of subgenres can merit studied dissection. Folk horror is certainly no small part of its rich history, though, and while it’s enjoyed a neat resurgence in recent years, its impact and influence feels largely downplayed in the wider genre discourse.
But producer-turned-director Kier-La Janisse seeks to change that with her mighty three-hour deep-dive documentary Woodlands Dark Days and Days Bewitched, which traces folk horror from its origins in early cinema through to its boom period in the ’60s and more recent revival.
If the beefy 194-minute runtime might understandably intimidate, Janisse sensibly divides her film into six chapters allowing viewers to easily make episodic sittings out of it should they wish. Though for enthusiasts of the subgenre, one suspects Janisse’s film will keep them magnetically glued to the screen. Casual observers? A little less so.
Janisse begins by detailing the rituals and rural settings that characterise folk imagery, before leaping off to examine the so-called “Unholy Trinity” of British folk horror – Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. Each is concerned in their own way with faith and a force or movement that seeks to preserve the “old ways” by any means necessary.
But like their genre descendants, the Trinity were steeped in myriad influences, from the visceral, earthy literature of authors such as M. R. James, to the very real socio-political concerns facing Britain in the ’60s and beyond. British folk horror’s fixation on the tension between the past and present is informed by, above all else, urban development’s industrious destruction of the rural way of life, class warfare, and national identity. These issues were prevalent enough to bleed into mainstream society far beyond this genre, namely ’70s children’s TV and even a Doctor Who episode.
Yet as much as cinema can reflect contemporary concerns, it also has the ability to re-shape history both for better and worse. Folk horror’s continued relationship with pagan imagery is a particularly complicated and fascinating one; we will likely never know how much of folk mythology ever actually happened – the concept of a Wicker Man, for instance, is apocryphal – yet to the chagrin of historians and folklorists, the cinematic embellishment becomes the new folklore.
Folk horror may be most closely associated with British cinema, but it would be a huge disservice not to look beyond, especially given America’s own rich folk tradition, per both the Salem witch trials and Puritan colonisation of North America. It may shock some viewers to learn that the well-trod trope of the “Indian burial ground” is nothing more than a Hollywood-conceived plot device, and can be deemed part of a concerted effort by white America to “other” Native Americans in order to assuage their own collective guilt.
This transpires through to a wider suspicion of smaller, closed-off communities, whether the Amish in Children of the Corn or cults in Midsommar, where once again the clash between ways old and new spill over into brutal violence. And while it doesn’t much fit the traditional conception of a folk horror, Candyman’s focus on urban legends and America’s dark past of slave ownership makes it a rarest of non-rural entries into the subgenre.
The picture becomes even richer when Janisse pulls back further to explore the wider world; Australia’s own colonial history has proven fertile ground for folk horror in unexpected places (Wolf Creek, Lake Mungo), while Poland (Demon), Guatemala (La Llorona), Japan (Noroi: The Curse), and countless others use the genre to bring their own distinct national and cultural traumas to the fore.
It’s clear from the global picture that folk horror as a whole is a reflection of both collective anxiety and guilt, often rooted in archetypal myths and fairy tales which are then twisted to fit the worldview of different countries. Evidently, across cultures folk horror holds a mirror up to human ills – just like more conventional horror does, too – resulting in a subset that’s at once deceptively diverse and enticingly universal.
Though folk’s heyday was decades ago, there is a small charge of filmmakers leading the revival of the last decade-or-so, which some subjects here suggest may be a result of both the world-changing impact of 9/11 and humanity’s wider loss of its connection with nature per technological advancements. Modern folk horror may ultimately be a symptom of a pessimistic, walled-off society scratching around in the dark for the hand of a fellow citizen of the world.
Across the film, Janisse speaks to a wide variety of journalists, authors, experts, and even a few filmmakers – including, most notably, The Witch director Robert Eggers – all of whom are clearly hugely enthusiastic about the genre. Their discussions are intercut with shrewdly selected footage from the films mentioned, as well as occasional poetry readings, animations, and even paper collage sequences assembled by artist Guy Maddin.
While Woodlands Dark Days and Days Bewitched is unlikely to appeal far beyond its established niche – compared to, say, the more casual-friendly long-form Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street documentaries – there is something to be said for a filmmaker accepting they’re preaching to the converted and just going for it.
The result is an engaging collision of academic readings and broader chit-chat, where even the more prosaic, laboured discussions are at least accompanied by compelling, relevant footage. This may at times feel like an exhausting bombardment of cultural touchstones if viewed as a single sit, but if nothing else you’re sure to get a solid list of recommendations out of it (keep your eye out for Psychomania, which looks wild).
A strictly-for-enthusiasts three-hour plunge into the rich history and iconography of the folk horror genre, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is mostly successful as modest edutainment.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.