The Movie Waffler SXSW 2021 Review - WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR | The Movie Waffler

Sponsor

SXSW 2021 Review - WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror review
A deep dive into the folk-horror sub-genre.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kier-La Janisse

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror poster

In recent years the relatively dormant subgenre of folk-horror has been resurrected by filmmakers like Ari Aster (Midsommar), Robert Eggers (The Witch) and Ben Wheatley (A Field in England). What better time for a comprehensive documentary on the subject, which is exactly what we get in writer/director Kier-La Janisse's Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

There's no concrete definition of what actually makes a movie or piece of literature fall under the heading of folk-horror, but it's generally agreed that folk-horrors are concerned with our relationship to the past, often involving friction between tradition and progress. As this doc highlights, the sub-genre tends to blossom in periods when we've grown disillusioned with modernity and are looking back at the past through nostalgic eyes, or at times when we're assessing the sins of our forefathers. As such, folk-horrors are usually set in the past, or else see modern day protagonists contending with some sort of dark legacy or traditions that refuse to bow to progress.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror review

Split into six chapters, Janisse's doc roughly divides its three hours equally between three geographical categories, with an hour devoted to British folk-horror, an hour for the US, and an hour for the rest of the world.


In Britain we find the "Unholy Trilogy" of three films from the late '60s and early '70s that cemented the ideas of the sub-genre before the label "folk-horror" had ever been designated – 1968's Witchfinder General, 1971's The Blood on Satan's Claw and 1973's The Wicker Man. In these three films we see the development of the sub-genre's central themes of conflict between tradition and progress, paganism versus Christianity, free will versus authoritarianism.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror review

So rich is the folk-horror tradition of Britain that the entire three hours might have been devoted to this singularly spooky isle, but the doc manages to pack a lot into the hour given to British folk-horror. Along with movies and the literary tradition, there's much focus on British TV, which in the '70s and '80s was a goldmine for folk-horror fans. Along with adult fare like Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You, A Ghost Story for Christmas and numerous editions of anthology series Play for Today, folk-horror flourished on the small screen at teatime in children's shows like The Owl Service, Children of the Stones and Moondial.


When we cross the Atlantic we find a heavy British influence on American folk-horror, thanks largely to Britain exporting so many of its religious fundamentalists across the pond, and with them manic superstitions. Mix this with Native American lore and you have a melting pot of folk traditions, all with their own demons. As we also see in the folk-horrors of Latin America and Australia, the folk-horror of the New World is largely concerned with colonial guilt, with the indigenous burial ground a recurring trope. As the final internationally focussed act shows, folk-tales and superstitions share remarkable similarities whether they be from Britain, Japan or Brazil.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror review

Janisse has assembled an impressive roster of talking heads here, and has wisely opted for knowledge over personality. There are no bad comedians on display here, just experts who know what they're talking about, and many of the scholarly contributors will be familiar voices to anyone who listens to blu-ray commentaries. Folk-horror icons Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy lend their voices to reciting poems, while cult filmmaker Guy Maddin provides some animated sequences. A soundtrack of jangly folk music adds greatly to the mood.

At over three hours, Woodlands… is exhaustive, and with so much information thrown at you it can get a little exhausting. It's probably best to break it into three chunks to avoid overload, and it might have functioned better as a three-part mini-series rather than the epic doc of its current form. Whatever way you choose to ingest Janisse's doc, make sure you have pen and paper (or perhaps quill and parchment is more befitting) to hand – you're going to want to write down a lot of movie titles to add to your "to watch" list.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror plays online at the SXSW Film Festival from March 17th to 21st.

2021 movie reviews