Popularised by Jonathan Rigby and Mark Gatiss in the Home Counties Horror episode of 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, the term ‘folk horror’ has captured the imaginations of the horror community. It conjures visions of Vincent Price stalking through furrowed fields, of tweedy academics besieged by horny, masked revelers, and of fiends flitting between ancient standing stones. Although these images can be called to mind with startling clarity, it can be harder to pin down an exact definition of this complex sub-genre.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a mammoth three-hour documentary directed by Kier-La Janisse, attempts to do just this. It provides viewers with a guide to the sub-genre’s roots, its most significant sub-currents and its various global manifestations. It includes interviews from academics and aficionados such as(Author of We Don’t go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror) and Maisha Wester (Author of African American Gothic), as well as pivotal creators such as Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan’s Claw) and Lawrence Gordon Clark (A Ghost Story for Christmas). Given that this is a famously backwards-looking sub-genre, the film makes sure to include input from directors who comprise the contemporary folk horror scene, such as Alice Lowe (Prevenge) and Robert Eggers (The VVitch, The Lighthouse).
As well as clips from a huge archive of films, the documentary peppers in animated sequences by Ashley Thorpe, the artwork of Guy Maddin and an original score by Jim Williams (A Field in England). And of course, no contemporary folk horror work would be complete without cover art by Richard Wells.
Naturally, the film begins with ‘The Unholy Trinity’ of folk horror: The Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wickerman. From here, we delve into the murky world of 1970s British horror and how it intersected with the turbulent politics of the day. We cover the influence of figures like M.R. James, Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner, uncovering cultural curios both macabre and beguiling.
For many fans, this might feel like retreading a lot of familiar ground, but the interviewees’ insightful comments and Kier-La Janisse’s expert structuring keep things lively and engaging. The film proposes certain key texts as landmarks by which we might navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the genre. As a speaker describes it later on in the film, it is easier to understand folk horror less as a genre and more like music, with recurring themes and motifs that can be identified even when presented in unfamiliar orders. With this approach, we are encouraged to look with fresh eyes at films that we may not have considered as folk horror before, such as 1992’s Candyman.
Another feat that the film pulls off is to effectively situate the films within their cultural context. It charts the evolution of the genre against its backdrop of feminist activism, civil unrest, ecological concerns and urban alienation. This is particularly useful when we come to consider the modern ‘folk horror revival’, which could perhaps be explained by the recurrence of these themes in our present cultural moment. It also opens up one of the most interesting questions of the film: whether folk horror is an inherently reactionary genre, pining after a mythologised, idyllic past, or whether it is a counter-cultural rejection of the current status quo.
The film also uses concepts from critical theory, such as psychogeography and hauntology. Through these, we explore how recurrent elements from the past haunt our shared present, and how our relationship with our environment can have sinister implications. These complicated ideas are presented with thoughtfulness and clarity, and the discussion never gets overwhelmed by academic jargon.
For those who consider themselves already familiar with the fixtures of folk horror, the final third of the film is sure to prove the most enlightening. Here, we leave the bucolic landscapes of England behind and set off around the world to discover how other cultures have explored these same ideas. It would be impossible to properly dissect each country’s output with the same forensic thoroughness seen in the opening. However, Woodlands Dark identifies a huge list of films that could be used as jumping-off points for further exploration. Much like how our own ‘Unholy Trinity‘ is the first step on a journey into the dark side of England’s dreaming, any one of these movies could be the start of an equally fascinating journey.
One of the most interesting threads that the documentary picks at is how different cultures use folklore to examine historical trauma. Included is the Israeli film Demon, which examines repressed Polish guilt from the time of the Holocaust. Similarly, it features La Llorona, an updated fairy tale that evokes the brutality of life under an oppressive dictatorship. Storytellers around the world seem to instinctively gravitate towards ancient folkloric traditions to expose their people’s psychic wounds.
At just over three hours long, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a weighty cinematic tome. However, while it is exhaustive and thorough, it is never dull. Throughout its runtime, it is informative and entertaining, exploring difficult themes with erudition and intelligence. As a primer for the uninitiated, it is as close to a comprehensive guide on the subject of folk horror as you could possibly get. For those who already know their Penda’s Fen‘s from their Stone Tapes, this extensive study is sure to unearth new and enchanting terrors. In short, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is essential viewing for any serious horror fan.