Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched Review

Folk horror conjures up many images, both old and new. Pagan rituals, witches, and sprawling landscapes all set the stage for stories that tend to get passed down from generation to generation whether through word of mouth, literature, or film. Director Kier-La Janisse crafts a comprehensive collection and thorough analysis of folk horror films that span back to the early 20th century in her impressive SXSW documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

The documentary opens with a cryptic poem followed by a beautiful animation sequence courtesy of Ashley Thorpe, with spellbinding original music by Jim Williams to really set the mood for what the audience is about to experience. To begin with, folk horror has a different meaning depending on what region of the world you inhabit, and the imagery associated with the subgenre is vast. A voice over sequence with multiple interviewees describe what comes to mind when they think of folk horror. One individual states that folk horror is based upon the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny. Another describes the subgenre as lights flickering in dark woods, the darkness in childrens play, being lost in ancient landscapes. Ancient wisdom that has been long repressed and forgotten that has been raised up againis also mentioned. 

Over one hundred films are featured in Janisses documentary, which speaks to how contextually layered the subgenre is and how its roots can be found in religious, sociopolitical, and historical subtext. The documentary is broken up into several chapters to explore various regions of the world and their folklore influences on cinema. In the beginning, a lot of focus is given to the unholy trinity: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satans Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). British horror is used as a means to analyze folk horror as a disruption of the social order and tradition grounded in psycho-geography. A great deal of time is focused on the groundwork that British lore and filmmakers have influenced the genre as a whole.

Transitioning to the American lens of folk horror, films that feature life on the prairie, Native American culture and influence, as well as New England and the Salem Witch Trials all become prominent topics of discussion. The American south is also examined through the cinematic depiction of hoodoo versus voodoo with films like Eves Bayou and The Believers. Scholars elaborate that American folk horror can even be expanded to urban legends with the classic horror film Candyman because of its liminality and psycho-geographrical pull.

One of the beautiful aspects of Woodlands is that several countries and cultures are featured in-depth. While the massive runtime can be daunting to experience in one sitting, it is still refreshing to have an inclusive and thorough world view of the subgenre. Mexico, Brazil, Japan, China, Italy and Czechoslovakia are some of the countries of focus. Many sequences touch on similar themes of politics and old customs intruding on the new ones. This sort of universal thread through mythology and folklore is quite beautiful to witness throughout the documentary and really spotlights how horror is a reflection of the times. Also, how folk horror truly is the story of the people, or folk. 

Renowned scholars, film critics, authors, and directors from all over the world discuss each film and its corresponding region from various artistic, psychological, scientific, political and sociocultural aspects. Janisse, who is also author of the book House of Psychotic Women, also provides enlightening input throughout her own film. Its scholarly approach justifies the documentarys expansive exploration into the subgenre and serves as important reference material that every horror fan (or film fan, for that matter) should keep on their shelf. Filled with thoughtful commentary, lush visuals and a myriad of perspectives, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is a must-watch that chronicles humankinds most intriguing cinematic stories. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Marisa Mirabal is a writer living in Austin, TX alongside her dog and Stephen King collection. When she isn't conjuring up film criticism, she can be found spinning film scores on vinyl or sipping whiskey.