Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History Of Folk Horror

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History Of Folk Horror
"Rather than trying to establish a thesis of her own, Janisse allows her interviewees to deliver contradictory viewpoints on key issues, and the film is richer for it." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

Folklore is the oldest manifestation of shared storytelling. It has been a part of cinema since the very early days, when it inspired works such as Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Cabbage Fairy and George S Fleming’s Jack And The Beanstalk. But what of folk horror? Kier-La Janisse’s outstanding documentary traces the history and form of this influential cinematic tradition across decades and continents, and does it all with such verve that, at three hours and 14 minutes in length, this densely packed film still flashes by.

It begins with what Janisse calls the big three: Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. All three have a strong personal relevance for her and al three continue to be celebrated as classics decades after they were made. They’re as good a hook as any on which to hang a film which is remarkable in its organisation, somehow managing to pull together a vast morass of material into coherent chapters despite the fact that one thing its numerous expert contributors agree on is that folk horror as a concept is really hard to define.

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The film, part of the 2021 Fantasia and Frightfest line-ups, was originally intended to be a DVD extra on The Blood On Satan’s Claw, but it soon became apparent that the subject was too big for that. There remains the tantalising possibility that it will be expanded into a series. As one would expect, it delves into the tension between old ways and new that underscores the folklore of the British Isles, exploring the ways that this has manifested in cinema and, more curiously, in children’s television programming of a certain era, but it doesn’t stop there, going on to address the intersection of folk traditions and horror cinema in numerous countries around the world.

The boundaries of the subject are not quite what you might expect, as Janisse examines the way that folk tentacles extend into urban horror films like Bernard Rose’s Candyman and considers how its expression has changed over the years. There is discussion of the psychology behind its ongoing appeal and feminist perspectives form an important part of the analysis. It would have been nice to see a bit more focus on race, and the UK section is surprisingly light on class analysis, but given the scope of the film it’s difficult to fault it for this. There is no point at which it pauses or drags. Even the transitions between chapters are accompanied by gorgeous original artwork (created by Ashley Thorpe) which contributes to setting the mood.

Rather than trying to establish a thesis of her own, Janisse allows her interviewees to deliver contradictory viewpoints on key issues, and the film is richer for it. It is a work so ambitious in its reach that it raises as many questions as it answers and feels like the opening salvo in a discussion rather than an attempt t have the final word. Nevertheless, no matter how familiar you believe yourself to be with this subject, you will come away with a long list of future viewing and reading material which you’ll want to get stuck into as soon as possible, so be prepared to take notes.

When assembling this film, Janisse told me, she worried that it would be too academic to interest many people, yet she has created what is to date the most impressive and enjoyable documentary of the year. In horror circles it is destined to become a legendary work.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2021
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Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History Of Folk Horror packshot
A documentary about the history of folk horror cinema from the 1960s to today.

Director: Kier-La Janisse

Writer: Kier-La Janisse

Year: 2021

Runtime: 194 minutes

Country: US

Streaming on: Shudder


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