An exhaustive documentary that expands our understanding and appreciation of folk horror
There’s an old French word, Terroir. It refers to the taste and quality of a crop as imparted by the local environment. Grapes and the ensuing wine made, is a product of a place at a certain time for instance. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched roots the terror of folk horror in it’s terroir.
The documentary begins by answering a pertinent question, what is folk horror? Origins often begin in ancient fable and myth, poems and folk songs, their persistence (or recurrence) butting against modern man. We tend to associate it with insular communities, rituals and cults, rational thought and science being overwhelmed by superstition, or structure and order giving way to disorder and madness. As it unfolds, the documentary crystalizes the folk horror concept, but a boundary is never truly put in place, as the pervasive nature of of the genre becomes apparent.
Woodlands Dark is an expansive effort, but makes efficient use of its 3 hour runtime. If you consider that to be a little daunting, there are six defined chapters that would help to break things into more digestible chunks. Kicking off (appropriately) in the British Isles, respect is paid to three seminal works that paved the way for much that followed, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). There’s also a dive into the formative works of literature by writers such as M.R. James (popularized in the BBC’s 1970s series A Ghost Story for Christmas), the contributions of filmmakers and production companies such as Hammer and Amicus, and even a tip of the hat to Doctor Who.
From this foundational work, the film superbly chronicles the global spread of the genre. Folk tales, whether horror or not, are inspired by events and traditions, perpetuated by writings and word of mouth. Stories are passed on and pop up, cultivated and informed by local traditions. Instead of pagan cults in English villages you have rural communities in America with a twisted version of Christianity (and spooky a.f. cornfields). While witchcraft is prevalent in European and New England lore, in the South, with its ties to slavery, there are more stories involving “voodoo than hoodoo”. The intent to vilify and take away power from women and people of color respectively, speaks to undertones that persist in many of these stories. A lot of British folk horror stems from the pushback of nature and the old ways, against the encroachment of industrialization and man. Around the world the effects of colonization, the displacement of cultures or assimilating them (Aboriginal or Native American for instance), has provoked similar tales, in some cases to preserve culture, and in others to protect it. Folk horror is so provocative and unnerving because it often represents a return to the old ways, or serves as a reminder of discriminatory acts on the basis of religion, sex, or race. More disturbingly, it can also be used to twist the truth, shaping our view of the past.
As it closes out, the documentary looks to the recent revival and future of folk horror, through filmmakers such as Mattie Do (Dearest Sister), Robert Eggers (The Witch), Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar). It’s a nice reminder that these tales, rooted deep in the past, are still inspiring storytellers. A substantial proportion of folk horror movies are period films, but they don’t just reflect the time they were set, but the time in which they were made. Events big and small, global and personal, are helping them evolve, and ensure the fears they elicit continue to resonate.
Woodlands Dark is an accomplished directorial debut for Kier-La Janisse, undoubtedly well prepared for such an endeavor after serving as a programmer of Fantastic Fest, authoring House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, and founding the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. Constructed using interviews (archival and newly recorded) with dozens of diverse filmmakers, authors, actors, and historians, with clips from over 100 films, unnerving images made all the more impactful thanks to discordant and moody score from Tim Williams (Kill List, Possessor). Evocative animations by Ashley Thorpe, along with paper collages by Guy Maddin (with Zena Grey and Brenda Rioux), provide connective material and give the film a distinct aesthetic throughout, which is all the more impressive considering some of the sights glimpsed as we run through such a cinematic history.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is an exhaustive and eye-opening effort. Going back through decades of cinema, delving into ancient lore and fears, and crisscrossing the globe, it expands our understanding of Folk Horror, how pervasive it is, and how it has persisted in our minds. It ties together places, people and cultures, celebrating the diversity of these stories, and the storytellers who fuel their fire, adding to their legacy.