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‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’: A deep dive into the history of folk horror

| Thursday, January 27, 2022

Claire Kirner | The Observer
Image source: Facebook

Folk horror is a rather nebulous subgenre, traditionally lacking a hard and fast definition. However, for the purposes of this article, folk horror can be defined as horror media that deals with folklore, witchcraft/paganism, themes of power and isolation and often involves some form of ancient ritual or magic(k).

In the ’60s and ’70s, folk horror provided a number of great films such as “The Wicker Man,” “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and “Witchfinder General,” but the popularity of it waned as studios and filmmakers turned to the slasher genre at the dawn of the ’80s in the wake of John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” In recent years, folk horror has been experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to films like “The Witch,” “Midsommar” and “Hagazussa.” Director Kier-La Janisse’s new documentary, “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror,” is a three-hour magnum opus that deftly navigates the complex history of folk horror.

The film is structured into chapters, each with a different theme. The film is comprised of footage from over 100 films, interviews with film historians and filmmakers as well as beautifully animated sequences that capture the mood of each chapter. “Woodlands” covers everything from the foundational films of folk horror to the obscure hidden gems of the genre from around the world. If this sounds too niche, I promise it isn’t. If you’ve enjoyed the recent A24 horror films, you’ll enjoy this film.

What I found most impressive about the film is how Janisse manages to make the film’s gargantuan 192-minute runtime fly by, as every second is absolutely necessary to the film. Each frame adds to the film’s wide-reaching scope in a meaningful way and furthers the film’s discussion of folk horror history and its cultural context. I was absolutely engrossed; I found myself totally lost in the sweeping survey of a type of horror film that I love. The history of folk horror is just as rich as the history of any genre and appears in different forms around the world, but it is most often associated with England and America, and this film does a brilliant job of showing that folk horror exists in every culture around the world and shows how it interacts with the folklore of each culture that is discussed.

The film’s final chapter is dedicated to exploring folk horror around the world, as well as discussing indigenous and marginalized voices in horror cinema, which cover a number of cinema cultures that are woefully understudied in the Western world. Interspersed throughout the other chapters of the film are discussions of the underlying political messaging in many folk horror films, such as nationalism, the legacy of colonialism and the othering of indigenous peoples and “outsider” cultures, particularly in the discussion of British and American folk horror.

I get it, this is niche stuff. But if you’re a horror fan, this is required viewing. It’s truly a brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking. Janisse’s authorial voice is present throughout the film, unwavering and certain in each move, which imbues the film with a sense of confidence in its style and presentation that makes “Woodlands” eminently watchable in spite of its admittedly intimidating runtime. Even as an unabashed fan of Folk Horror, I was surprised by how much I learned from “Woodlands,” as there are films mentioned here that I would never have discovered had I not watched this film. So, if you liked the 1973 version of “The Wicker Man” or “Midsommar” and want more, “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” should be your next stop on your journey into the world of folk horror — you’ll leave feeling like an expert on the subgenre.


Title: “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror”

Director: Kier-La Janisse

Genre: Documentary

If You Liked: “The Wicker Man,” “Midsommar,” “In Search of Darkness”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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About Justin George

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