Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror – SXSW Review

by Jordan King

The first feature from festival programmer, author, and Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies founder Kier-La Janisse, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror represents a mammoth undertaking for a debut filmmaker. Drawing on a history as deep as the Earth that claws back those in pursuit of progress, and boldly (rightly) claiming its status as the definitive article on a mode as dense and as labyrinthine as the forests, fields, faiths, and folkloric tales to which folk horror owes its lifeforce, Janisse compiles over 200 films discussed by over 50 genre experts to commit to film a work that is devilishly devourable. A 3 hour film school class never flew by so fast.

Janisse’s inquiry into folk horror, fitting her scholarly approach to the subject, is neatly segmented into six chapters. The form first and foremost keeps her work’s epic length and scope focused, and niftily creates an opportunity for viewers to revisit the documentary in fragmented form at a later date, dipping into a bit of Paganism here, a bit of voodoo and hoodoo there, a smackerel of Slavic horror should one so wish. It is a testament to Janisse’s lyrical, enthusiastic approach to her work however that I can only imagine returning to Woodlands Dark for the full three hours plus change – part of the beauty of the breadth of this film is the whipsmart connections that transport us across continents and cultures; the transition from British Paganist folk horror to the Puritanically founded fears that fester in the American tradition is match-cut levels of inspired.

The first chapter of Janisse’s film covers the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of folk horror – Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. These three films serve as a must-see starting point to the uninitiated and are the sacred texts of the already devoted, and are treated as such with great reverence here. Functioning as an ‘Introduction to Folk Horror’, this chapter sets out in basic terms Janisse’s frame of reference for what characterises the mode, positioning The Unholy Trinity as the closest thing to defining these parameters we have. It is a rejection of pre-existing (pre-1960s) horror conventions, which Reeves’ film demonstrated by posing a sadistic witchcraft narrative set amidst the English Civil War; it is a mode through which folklore’s ‘strange and wonderful’ tales of terror are mined to invoke society’s perennial fears, evinced powerfully in Haggard’s story of children converting into a devil-worshipping coven (any parent’s worst nightmare!); and lastly, maybe most crucially, it’s a medium through which ‘the old religion’ and ‘the old ways’ surface, exposing tensions between traditionalism and modernity – Sgt. Neil Howie’s trip to Summerisle remains the most chilling diegesis on these tensions we’ve yet been given.

Notably, the Unholy Trinity all hail from England, whose enduring pastoral landscape and rich literary tradition of horror stories set within it (M.R James’ ghost stories as well as folktales like Randall’s Round and The Wendigo are namechecked) make it a perfect home for folk horror. As contributor and folk horror revivalist Robert Eggers bluntly states, ‘there’s more folk horror coming out of Britain than anywhere’. It comes as no surprise then that the second chapter of Janisse’s film build on the introduction and digs a little deeper.

Building a convincing case for folk horror’s surfacing in cinema and television in the late 60s and 70s correlating with England’s rurality being threatened by industrialisation and modernity’s quickening onslaught, Janisse and her myriad talking heads paint a vivid picture of a state where the town was coming for the countryside and so filmmakers in increasingly macabre ways sought to tell tales of the countryside trying to claw its way back – Nigel Kneale’s Stone Tape in particular is given a lot of coverage here, and is well worth adding to the inevitable Letterboxd list you’ll find yourself scrabbling to compile as Janisse seamlessly splices her sources together. Folk horror scholar Howard David Ingham pinpoints British folk horror even more specifically at the chapter’s close though, suggesting that all of the genre’s works can be summated in three words – ‘We don’t go back.’ As we see films increasingly threatening our urban idylls with rural cults and old faiths, it is abundantly clear that the notion of the past converging on the present holds enduring terror for society at large – ‘if we go back we enter a realm of superstition and madness’.

Ingham’s statement segues smoothly into a third chapter that picks apart Paganism and Witchcraft in folk horror. This section is especially intriguing as Janisse draws parallels between historic stories of witches and their persecution and the course of women’s suffrage in the past century – one of the great virtues of Woodlands Dark is that Janisse is such a well-read and versed curator of this specific strain of cinema that she renders observations beyond the scope of the layman in such a way as to make them feel blindingly obvious. The fact that the late 20th century saw witches reimagined cinematically as renegades rather than decrepit denizens of destruction in films like The Witches of Eastwick and The Craft is a sign of a paradigm shift where the notion of the witch as any female ‘existing out of tradition’ was reclaimed by feminists as a source of empowerment and a badge of honour rather than repression.

Again Janisse’s clearly thought out line of enquiry smoothly takes us ever onwards in our odyssean voyage into folk horror, which it is worth saying is beautifully accompanied by A Field in England and Possessor composer Jim Williams’ metamorphosing musical contributions and suitably eerie animation from Ashley Thorpe. Her fourth chapter takes the idea of tensions between the past and present and an ever-pervading paranoia of any and all figures categorised as ‘other’ across the pond, exploring how folk horror manifests stateside. The overall picture of American folk horror presented here is of a brand of storytelling rooted in paranoia and fear, Puritanism and an inherent fear that the sins of the nation’s past will become the reckoning of its present.

With a history in which Puritans believed Native Americans were a ‘challenge’ put on Earth to test them, a Luciferian contrivance, the upsurge in Indigenous activism within the country in the 1970s coincides with narratives of modern Americana disrespecting and disregarding Indigenous lives. Much like how in British folk horror at the time we were seeing narratives depicting a resistant land combatting its erasure by modernity and industrialisation, in American folk horror we were getting films like The Shining, Pet Sematary, and Amityville Horror, each of which instilled the now-iconic trope of symbols of ‘New America’ being planted atop Native American burial grounds, triggering vengeful spirits who destabilise and dismantle domestic bliss.

Going further yet, Janisse expands the narrative to explore the Southern Gothic and its temporal anxieties, long-standing fears abound by cults and fringe faiths (cf; Midsommar), as well as touching on Voodoo and hoodoo, showing clips of Candyman and The Believers amongst others to demonstrate how folk horror’s definitional boundaries have grown as the cinematic inquisition into America’s colonial, imperialist guilt has shifted ever closer to the present day.

If there is any criticism to be made of Janisse’s work, it is that its awesome depth across its first four British and American centric chapters means that the fifth chapter, on ‘Folk Horror Around the World’, feels as if it is tasked with working at double speed to make up for lost time. Australia, with its own colonialist history to toil with, features prominently, with films like Lake Mungo and Wolf Creek – two films that aren’t immediately obvious inclusions but which are ably justified by far more authoritative figures for their mythic portrayal of the outback – leading the way. We also go on a whistlestop tour of Japan, with its Yokai films such as Kwaidan and Onibaba suggesting an ancestral folk horror born of the current generation’s fraught relationship with their antecedents, before taking in Slavic, Norwegian, and African approaches to the form. The parallels drawn between global mythologies and the shared DNA of the folk horror tradition in its many national interpretations is still impressive, but what began as the best lecture we never had suddenly takes on the urgency of a cramming session. In the interest of fairness – still the most useful cramming session I or any of you will likely ever have.

The final chapter of Woodlands Dark sees us arrive in the present day, with the folk horror revival of the 2010s, instigated by figures like Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, and Ben Wheatley. Films rich in folklore and the themata of the tradition like A Field in England, The VVitch, and Midsommar, as well as successful foreign fare like La Llorona have brought the genre back with a vengeance. As the experts suggest however, did it ever really disappear? Or was it just laying in wait?

We are living in our own societal hauntology, with racism and fascism front and centre of the social consciousness, and our current isolation has given us time to reflect on and realise how little the world has actually changed and how little progress has truly been made. As we seek to combat the crises of our times though, our storytelling – almost fatedly – has circled back to that folk horror tradition of self-excavation through the supernatural, the unsettling, and the unknown.

With films such as Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth demonstrating the enduring fertility of folk horror as a mode of cinema, especially in a COVID-era world of paranoia surrounding what awaits us beyond our own front door, Janisse’s film closing with a chapter on the genre’s current revival demonstrates conviction in the belief that wherever we may go from here, folk horror is going with us. After all, the mode’s credo is ‘we don’t go back’.

There’s certainly no going back once you’ve been through these woodlands dark and days bewitched. Essential cinema.

Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror played as part of SXSW Film Festival.

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