History has a nasty little habit of being reductive. Life unfolds with such a multitude of specificity it’s damn easy to be overwhelmed by it all. So we generalize, we categorize. Anything that doesn’t fit is extricated. Then, after enough time has passed, all that remains is a simple, graspable idea or image. And it’s so simple, so graspable, any notion of the contrary seems absurd.
This reduction is one of the gravest issues plaguing film history and appreciation; a trap the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, from writer/producer/director Kier-La Janisse and producer Winnie Cheung, refuses to fall into.
Conjuring images of medieval witches, pagan rituals, and human sacrifice, folk horror is most often associated with British and Puritan histories. The writer Oscar James Campbell is believed to have coined the phrase in literature, but film historian Jonathan Rigby is taking credit for applying it to cinema circa 2006.
Though the phenomenon is much older: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claws (1971, pictured above), and The Wicker Man (1973) are considered by many to be the progenitors of the genre. Janisse talks to scholars and filmmakers to uncover the connective tissue between these three and the movies that followed. The conversation runs the gamut from religion to contemporary politics and all things in between. But as is the case with cinema, the greatest influence on cinema is cinema itself. As one interviewee points out, so little is known about these ancient rituals that the inventions popularized in the movies often create and propagate their own folklore.
But as Janisse shows, this English/American take comprises a narrow view of folk horror. Filmmakers from Japan, Mexico, and South America had been making folk horror films decades prior, and Janisse spends a good portion of her 194-minute doc engaging with these cinematic offerings. It’s the best part of Woodlands Dark because it shows how deep the folk horror roots go.
The only thing lacking is a discussion about filmmaking. Over 100 titles are referenced in Woodlands Dark—primarily to bolster the talking head interviews—and they focus on what each movie is about and the symbolism woven through the narrative. How these filmmakers went about presenting the story and symbols is largely absent. And considering how heavily horror films rely on technique, this absence feels significant.
Significant, but not enough to distract from Janisse’s creation, which remains a refreshingly inclusive look at folk horror throughout cinema. The joy of cinema is the joy of discovery, and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched offers much to discover.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)
Written and directed by Kier-La Janisse
Produced by Winnie Cheung, Kier-La Janisse
Severin Films, Not rated, Running time 194 minutes, Now playing the SXSW Film Festival.