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‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’ Review: A Deep, Three-Hour History of Cinematic Folk Horror

SXSW Review: Kier-La Janisse’s comprehensive and erudite 193-minute field guide to folk horror runs the gamut from "The Wicker Man" to "La Llorona."

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

Everything you always wanted to know about pagan blood sacrifices and the lingering psychic traumas of colonialism (but were afraid to discover for yourself), Kier-La Janisse’s “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” crams an entire semester’s worth of Hauntology 101 into a numbingly comprehensive 193-minute documentary that unearths the history of cinematic folk horror in such loving, erudite, and seductive detail that you almost can’t wait for it to be over so you can start watching some of the 100+ films that are excerpted along the way.

Not that such patience will necessarily be required. Trusting that her subject matter is fertile enough to merit such a scholarly approach, and also bewitching enough to survive it, Janisse connects the dots between “The Wicker Man” and “La Llorona” in a way that allows this multi-chapter epic to function as both séance-like spectacle and streaming-era syllabus in equal measure.

On the one hand, auditing the whole course in a single sitting makes it easier to recognize folk horror as a mode rather than a genre, and to appreciate how its different expressions across various cultures reflect the unresolved pasts that percolate beneath them all. On the other hand, “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” feels like it was intended to be referred to as much as watched, and you get the sense that Janisse wouldn’t be too upset if you kept pausing her documentary in order to log titles into the Letterboxd list you have open in another tab. Either way, it will leave you with a new fascination in the old ways.

Francis Fukuyama may not have penned “The End of History?” until 1989, but the idea that society had effectively used liberal democracy to “solve itself” had been in the air since at least 1861, and “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” argues that cinematic folk horror was already poking holes in it in the late 1960s, as the Unholy Trinity of “Witchfinder General,” “Blood on Satan’s Claw,” and “The Wicker Man” heard a stir of echoes from within the same past that post-war society was hoping to obliviate. “Folk horror is based upon the juxtaposition between the prosaic and the uncanny,” declares one of Janisse’s many talking head interview subjects, as the film opens by attuning us to the myriad ways that half-forgotten histories whisper through the cracks of the dominant cultures that have tried to pave over them. Pagan symbols. Ancient landscapes. Lights flickering inside a dark forest. A field in England.

British cinema is a natural starting point for any inquiry into folk horror, and Janisse uses it as the bedrock of her analysis into folk horror as a rural tradition rooted in psycho-geography and the violation of the social order. The rogue’s gallery of historians, critics, and filmmakers who provide commentary on the non-stop clip parade and take us through the film’s thoughtfully assembled talking points is more notable for its wide-ranging authority than it is for its few glaring absences; Robert Eggers, Alice Lowe, and “Blood on Satan’s Claw” director Piers Haggard all chime in with keen insights, but Janisse’s later emphasis on the resurgence of folk horror make it hard not to miss crucial figures like Ben Wheatley and Edgar Wright (that the villagers of “Hot Fuzz” go overlooked is only worth noting because it reflects this documentary’s relative humorlessness, which is one reason why “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” might be easier to enjoy in pieces).

At the same time, it’s easy to get the sense that Janisse’s talking heads are there for edutainment value more than anything else — ditto the occasional assist from Guy Maddin — as the clarity with which the director assembles her folk horror collage suggests that she knows as much about this stuff as anyone in the world. She even shows up as an interviewee herself at some points, inadvertently repeating the same trick that Wright pulled in his recent Sparks documentary in a way that suggests we might have a new trend on our hands. But Janisse’s voice is just as expressive through the shape that she gives to the film, and the connections that she draws between disparate traditions.

Particularly elegant is the leap she makes from England to New England, as paganism gives way to puritanism and Janisse dives into the relationship between American suffrage and the occult. Folk horror’s fixation on the ways that dominant cultures “alternately celebrate, conceal, and manipulate our own histories” — to quote the director’s own brief for the film — also finds obvious resonance in white America’s constant project of erasure as it pertains to indigenous and stolen peoples alike. Established classics like “Candyman” are natural points of reference, while Janisse implicitly argues that lesser-known works like Emma Tammi’s “The Wind” deserve their own place in the canon (subsection: prairie claustrophobia).

But there are bound to be blindspots in any film that purports to provide the definitive history of folk horror, even an 193-minute one, and the penultimate chapter’s focus on “world cinema” — or the vague mishmash of the many national cinemas that haven’t been covered thus far — inevitably feels as if it’s shortchanging a number of different histories. Brief references to “Onibaba” and “Kwaidan” in Japan or “Kadaicha” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in Australia feel like tantalizing name-checks, while the entire continent of Africa seems to go overlooked. The section on Russian folk horror is only memorable for its suggestion that every Soviet Film Historian has a glorious fireplace in their living room.

At the same time, this chapter allows Janisse to find commonalities between different iterations of folk horror (e.g. she uses water imagery to connect “La Llorona” to Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf”), and touch upon how similar myths travel the world under different names, as suffering and erasure are all too universal tales. They’re timeless as well. The backwards pull of folk horror only grows stronger in the face of modernity, which makes it easy to wish that “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” had more to say about 21st century examples of the form — what’s another hour in a documentary that already runs this long? Of course, there will always be room to add more later; Janisse’s fascinating mega-text on folk horror still only scratches the surface, and history, it reminds us, is never truly resolved.

Grade: B

“Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror” premiered at SXSW 2021. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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