SXSW Online 2021 – Film Review -Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)

An astonishingly expansive and texturally footsure study of folk horror’s enduring influence on the arts, especially cinema. Utilising mixed media, archive footage, evocative film clips and eclectic expert analysis it illustrates masterfully how bygone mindsets have shaped the destiny of human creativity.

Ridiculously exhaustive and meticulously navigated Kier-La Janisse‘s epic treatment of all things folk horror is rich in research and luridly earthy in form. Just like the subgenre in question, it is also obsessed with hidden subtext and steeped in respect and affection for dark social history and early indigenous belief systems.

The level of intellectualism in its execution is breathtaking, both from the filmmakers themselves and the enthusiastic aficionados they interview. There is no dead air in its truly epic runtime thanks to a near limitless cavalcade of insights and anecdotes from the assembled folk horror massive, revealing the truth behind legends and the films that celebrate them.

Although all the heavy hitters you would expect have gathered to lend their auspicious slant, there is plenty you might not, such as the underexposed genre powerhouse Katrin Gebbe. However, it is not just filmmakers and writers that hog the limelight. Social historians, theologians and even occultist bookshop owners pop up regularly to dive deeper into the source material.

Refreshingly, a great many of them are women, a trait that echoes the important matriarchal themes entrenched in the very heart of the film, and indeed, folk horror as a whole.

Partitioned into logical segments the documentary begins at the subgenres birth among the heartlands of British history. Nostalgic, whimsical and troubling all at the same time this section benefits from critical understanding rather than blind worship. The fact it still finds fresh perspectives around works such as The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw is typical of its determined verve and intense penetration.

The investigation of the surreal nature of 70’s children’s television is particularly mesmerising. It is truly jaw-dropping to see how intensely weird the themes and imagery became with progressive products of the 1960s in charge of programming.

We then cross to the states to take in their heavily politicised and racially contextual brand of folky fun and urban legend. It is fascinating to witness the juxtapositions and dissect their propensity to substitute toxic stereotypes for homogenous hauntology.  Along the way, we also learn the essential future life lesson in how to distinguish between voodoo and hoodoo. By the end of this riveting chapter you will totally buy that The Shining and yes, even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are movies to be considered fair entries in the folk horror canon.

Next, this cosmopolitan uber-documentary casts its net even wider and goes global. Probing every crevice of the planet and sponging up all traces of the subgenre as diverse as arthouse Ozploitation classic Wake in Fright and Japanese Buddhist fable Onibaba.

Despite this phenomenal commitment to completism, Janisse’s film never loses focus for a second and the ebb and flow of concepts and truisms transition seamlessly. The sterling editing work from Winnie Cheung and Benjamin Shearn is utterly instrumental in this. It must have been a near Olympian task to connect all the footage and interviews in such a tonally consistent and absorbingly complementary manner.

Finally, we take a look at the reasoning behind the ongoing revival of folk horror cinema and the synergy behind its current meta. Featuring some of the most audience polarising horror films of recent times, such as The VVitch and Hereditary, it provides enlightening evidence of why that might be.

Rather than a lazy full stop, this home stretch of our journey down the folk horror rabbit hole is perhaps the most resonant. Reminiscent of the ingenious musings of visionary documentarian Adam Curtis it both reinforces the overarching coda of the film and offers a bracing re-framing of genre progression.

Folk horror is showing no signs of slowing down. As privileged hypocrisy, religious fervour, rampant capitalism and our headlong rush into social media heteronomy escalate, so this subgenre finds radical new ways to expose the current world model as nothing more than a floored field trial.

Mischievous American shaman flick The Old Ways weaponises witchcraft folklore from a wide range of mythologies and belief systems to challenge modernity. New generation Australian Aboriginal horror anthology Dark Place exorcises post-colonial demons to reclaim identity. Perhaps most pertinent of all, the Welsh language eco-fable The Feast, showing at this very festival, embodies nearly all the themes raised in this documentary in a primal roar against the dysfunctional remit of profit-motivated redevelopment.

With a universal appeal that reaches way beyond the boundaries of its broad paganistic church Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched will delight anyone with even a passing interest in the integral mechanics of popular culture. Not to mention those who enjoy a constant conveyor belt of disturbing images, spooky reflection, violent debasement and rural nudity.

In exploring so articulately the ramifications of folkloric superstitions on modern storytelling, this monumental documentary has itself become a vital piece of social history. As gracefully woven and robustly chunky as the very finest of Summerisle sweaters.

★★★★★

WORLD PREMIERE

Documentary, Folk Horror | USA, 2021 | Cert: TBC | 3hrs 14 min | Severin Films | SXSW Online 2021 | 16th March. 2021 | Dir. Kier-La Janisse| Cast. Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, Piers Haggard