Kier-La Janisse’s documentary offers an enticing worldwide look at eerie genre films based on folklore and superstition.
“Folk horror” is a word of recent vintage — or at least popularity — that only broadens as “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” spends three and a quarter hours attempting to describe it. Nonetheless, the joys of this documentary by genre historian and programmer Kier-La Janisse are not diminished by a shaky argument. She uses enticing excerpts from over 100 films and numerous interviews to examine an alternatively gruesome and bizarre cinematic (as well as television) field of largely rural tales influenced by local superstitions and mythology.
The SXSW debut will provide genre enthusiasts with a long list of previously unknown movies to track down for a long time to come, making it a must-see for fantasy-fest and midnight-section programmers. Severin Films, a prominent restorer and home-formats distributor of old cult films, should have a ready-made following in its client base, which Janisse’s film will undoubtedly assist increase.
Aside from the director, the authorities interviewed here (just a few in archive interviews) include experienced and next-generation filmmakers, film historians, genre-cinema journalists, folklorists, and occult specialists. They provide a wide range of insights. However, “Woodland” first keeps its emphasis restricted, introducing folk horror as exemplified by an “unholy trilogy” of British films produced a half-century ago.
There’s 1968’s “Witchfinder General” (released in the United States as “The Conqueror Worm”), a notably terrifying tale of Inquisition-style religious frenzy gone wild that was, unfortunately, the final picture for very talented filmmaker Michael Reeves, who died shortly after its release. The directors of the other two are still alive to discuss them: Robin Hardy’s much-loved original 1973 “The Wicker Man,” a subversive black comedy pitting paganism against pious “civilized” propriety; and Piers Haggard’s lesser-known 1971 “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” a period piece in which (unlike “Witchfinder”) villagers’ fears of demonic possession turn out to be all too valid.
Share a rural environment in common and initial concerns of the unknown, nature, and women as receptacles for sexual or supernatural power. They exemplify the Vietnam War era’s growing skepticism toward bloodstained, hypocritical authority, as well as the parallel “back to the land” movement, which sought sanctuary from harsh modernity in nostalgia for purportedly simpler lives and pre-Christian mysticism.
The second of six chaptered parts here extends on that pattern by locating the formative essence of folk horror in a variety of British cinematic, literary, and television examples. They include fascinating clips from a slew of sub-feature-length BBC “Ghost Story for Christmas” shows directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, largely unknown outside the United Kingdom. Then there’s a concentration on details of paganism and witchcraft in the quasi-genre and American folk-horror cinema counterparts to all of the above (also encompassing several memorable TV movies).
The next-to-last chapter gives a broad, though rather haphazard, review of similar activities worldwide, with only Australia and Brazil receiving more than cursory attention. (This chapter might easily have been expanded into its three-hour movie.) It is made of works in which atrocities against the indigenous people of a colonized territory are avenged by returning a conquered society’s spiritual energies, or by hatred from the stolen country itself, as in some of the titles viewed from the United States.
Finally, directors such as Robert Eggers (“The Witch,” “The Lighthouse”) and Mattie Do (of Laotian films “Dearest Sister” and “The Long Walk”) take an equally worldwide look. At an asserted present “folk-horror resurgence.” “Woodlands” sometimes incorporates parts from movies, shorts, and TV programming that are simply “horror” in the most literal sense, extending the subject even further.
Those snippets are invariably in great shape, accounting for the poorer visual quality of older programs that have been filmed. Aside from the unusual usage of an original trailer, editors Winnie Cheung and Benjamin Shearn make the most of the many poetic and frightening visuals on hand through creative montages. Traditional gloomy folk tunes on the soundtrack provide character, as do poetry intoned by Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy (surviving leads in “Satan’s Claw” and “Witchfinder,” respectively), and animation by Ashley Thorpe. We also have Guy Maddin’s animated paper-collage segments, which are artistic and evocative in and of themselves but feel like clumsily placed entr’actes that never entirely integrate with the long but otherwise effortlessly entertaining progression.
Commentators argue that the popularity of folk horror stems from estrangement from more spiritual ideas (and anxieties) that have only developed from the birth of industrialization to the present digital era. That need for the metaphysical is heightened when our future appears so unclear, and, as one respondent put it, “all the horrors are happening right now….” It’s not the supernatural; it’s people.” Folk terror reflects a withdrawal from unpleasant reality into the comparative escape of non-denominational signs and marvels, just as superheroes have mostly supplanted the conventional sort.