Canadian Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History Of Folk Horror is a comprehensive and well-researched deep dive into a horror sub-genre filled with witches, voodoo, and wicker men.
With a 193-minute running time, the documentary gives folk horror its due while keeping the themes presented moving at an engaging pace. Taking an academic approach to the sub-genre, this isn’t a glossy and digestible pop culture doc series like Eli Roth’s accessible History Of Horror; it’s rather something for viewers who yearn to get below the surface of folk horror.
Utilizing filmmakers, researchers, and scholars, Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched covers from the the time the term “folk horror” was coined through to the present day. Janisse explores well beyond the familiar titles like The Wicker Man, The Witch and Midsommar, as she charts folk horror around the world from Australia to Japan, Central America and beyond. British folk horror acts as a natural start point when the film dives into decades of both familiar and obscure works, touching upon films as recent as Guatemala’s Golden Globe-nominated La Llorona.
The doc does more than offer surface readings of the films and their themes; in particular, the American folk history chapter connects the dots from 1960s British horror to that of the New World. The film makes an anthropological investigation into the roots of Black horror through colonialism and slavery, as well as poverty, Puritanism and the origins of the “Indian burial ground” trope so frequently used as a plot point in horror.
Even at three hours long, there’s still more that can be said when it comes to the cinema of Africa and other countries. Those films get name-checked but don’t get as much screen time as their American and British film counterparts. If there is a criticism of the film to be had, it is that the history of folk horror is still being told from a colonial perspective—many of the film’s talking heads are white. The doc could have provided a more robust and varied perspective if more experts offered their POV as non-white viewers. Though it must be said that’s not a criticism exclusive to Janisse’s work, but to most history of cinema documentaries.
Because the film takes an academic approach to folk horror, Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched feels like it is primed to serve as a reference for future film studies classes. It should definitely land as required viewing for any horror fan. If you’re the type, it might be handy to watch the documentary with a notebook close at hand so you can add titles to your Letterboxd watchlist. Even viewers fully immersed in the horror genre will find obscure new titles from around the world to add as “must-sees”.
Now there’s an idea. Could someone please make a Letterboxd list of every film referenced in Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched? That would be the ultimate folk horror checklist.
2021’s SXSW Film Festival ran from March 16 to 20. Catch up on other reviews from the fest here.