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SXSW Review: WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED – A Sweeping Doc Investigates the History of Folk Horror

Check out Drew Tinnin's 4.5 star review of the folk horror documentary WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED out of SXSW

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Directed by Kier-la Janisse

Written by Kier-la Janisse

Starring Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Robert Eggers


From Severin Films and horror historian Kier-la Janisse, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is an all-encompassing documentary focusing on first defining, then exploring, the legacy of folk horror from Britain to other examples around the globe. Tilling deep down into the soil to uncover forgotten or under seen examples of the subgenre, the film also climbs to the highest top of the sacrificial statues found in widely revered classics like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.

With over a hundred films and fifty interviews throughout its three-hour runtime, this is a list lovers dream and horror fans will either be delighted or intimidated by the amount of homework they’ll see ahead of them. Celebrating its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this year, director and producer Kier-la Janisse has constructed a complete history of folk horror that still leaves plenty of room for further debate and lively conversation within the halls of horror film criticism.

Spawning fairly organically from Janisse’s own self-obsession with The Wicker Man and the other two titans of folk horror, Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Woodlands Dark also started to take form due to in-depth panels and classroom conversations that began to show the universality of folk horror. One illuminating panel from last year’s virtual Fantasia Fest entitled “Narratives of Resistance in Folk Horror” had authors Kinitra Brooks, Bernice M. Murphy and Mikel Koven discussing the myriad of perspectives and places these stories are found in all over the world. Moderated by Janisse herself, that conversation and others like it helped set the stage for the structure of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. A format that begins with a laborious but exciting deep dive into the British phenomena of folk horror, the documentary also takes a look at American Indigenous folk horror, Jewish folk horror and more.

To give you an idea of just how extensive this collection of films and TV movies really is, the British segment alone mentions titles like Psychomania, Legend of the Witches, Red Shift, Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen and made-for-television haunts like 1975’s witchy tale Murrain and even “The Daemons” episode of Doctor Who from 1971. More familiar to American audiences, there’s also more recognizable examples of folk horror introduced in films such as the 1969 short of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, City of the Dead, Salem’s Lot, First Nation horror classic Pet Sematary and Wes Craven’s spideriffic Deadly Blessing. Rest assured, you’ll be more inspired to hunt down or revisit these titles than feel overwhelmed by the eye-opening vastness of folk horror on display. Just make sure you have a pen and paper on the ready and plenty of cinephiles to aid you on your quest.

This is far more than just a list movie with talking heads spouting off half baked curriculum with an air of pretense for two reasons: everyone knows what they’re talking about and their passion for the subject matter is readily apparent. That love of the genre is curated and conducted by Kier-la Janisse who uses hypnotic interludes featuring animation, poems and songs to help weave a narrative reminding us that history isn’t something to be afraid of or overanalyzed. We are a part of it and we should celebrate our traditions even when they’re found in the wackiest of places. The children’s show Bagpuss is treated with the same level of respect as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lost film Puritan Passions from 1932; newer films like Prevenge are mentioned with just as much reverence as Quatermass and the Pit. It’s that kind of level playing field and stitchwork that make a three-hour documentary feel like storytelling time.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is coming from a personal place but it boasts a worldly scope. Janisse is ultimately the main storyteller here urging us to use folk horror as a way to bring different cultures together through genre. It also examines how the cautionary tales about strange customs, thought to be stuck in the past, can still harm us now. But really, they should be looked at as stories to guide us and lessons to learn from. The doc does the same thing.

  • Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched
4.5

Summary

Director Kier-la Janisse is ultimately the main storyteller here urging us to use folk horror as a way to bring different cultures together through genre.