Published on August 23rd, 2021 | by Tim Chuma

MIFF2021: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)

MIFF2021: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021) Tim Chuma

Summary: The definitive documentary on folk horror films and a good jumping off point if you haven't seen much of the genre and want to know more.



I had first heard about this one due to Monster Pictures being involved in the Australian distribution and was originally meant to be one of the three screenings I had planned to attend in-person at MIFF this year (although not the special feature with Psychomania and Lair of the White Worm at the Astor Theatre), but that was not to be this time.

Kier-La Janisse is a well-known author of books about movies including the House of Psychotic Women, a film programmer and editor of special features of Severin which is how this documentary originally came out. She was editing a feature for Blood on Satan’s Claw for the USA release of the movie and the rough cut came out around 2hrs so the owners of the label encouraged her to keep going.

This is responsible for the structure of the film being how it is with the first section being about Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and the Wicker Man being the foundation of the folk horror genre and leading into UK films of the 1970s and then USA films. World cinema along the same lines is in the last third of the movie.

UK in the 1970s was in a bit of a mood that came across in its popular culture with even children’s entertainment being a lot scarier than you would see these days. I can remember the Goodies even did at least one episode about going up the country and also dealing with local cults. They do mention a particular episode of Dr Who and I remember seeing the Usborne’s World of the Unknown books in the library during the 1990s that were pretty old by then. Even PSAs in the UK were known for using a lot of horror tropes.

There is even a book Scarred for Life about scary and inappropriate popular culture in the UK in the 1970s and 80s. Current UK directors such as Ben Wheatley, Charlie Brooker and the creators of the League of Gentlemen comedy series were influenced by them also. One of the first places I saw these UK horror tropes mentioned was on the B3TA message board in the early 2000s that Ben Wheatley hung out on himself as it was a one of the first ways to “go viral” before that was really a thing and they are still popular there today.

While I had heard of some of the movies they mentioned, a lot of them are new to me like the Stone Tapes which has me going “ITS IN THE COMPUTERRRR!” already.

The documentary does broaden its scope with USA folk horror films bringing in the influences of native mythology and “there is no Indian burial ground” being one of thing they admit was made up for movies. Also I liked the quote “witchcraft is the only religion Britain contributed to the world” quote but again a lot of the things that become popular are those that look good on screen and not those that actually happened due to lack of written records of prior cultures.

The rest of the world films seem all to be squashed together as the director admitted they did originally try to go country by county but it seemed too much like a list. There was another editor who worked on this section who grouped the films by those of a similar theme more than country so it tends to jump around a lot more in this section.

This movie is very information dense due to the director’s history as an author so it would benefit watching this movie in bits rather than all at once so you can stop it and follow up watching trailers of even some of the movies it mentions and come back later. It is not necessary to have seen any of the movies it mentions first but it helps to at least know of some of them. I didn’t know about a lot of them either.

I did enjoy the music selections and the animated sequences with collages made by Guy Maddin and then animated by Zena Grey, Brendt Rioux and Ashley Thorpe. There were a lot of collages produced for the film that were not used. The director said she put them in the film to help break up the sections as there was a lot of interviews and they wanted to make it seem like less talking heads.

As the director said you can see the development of the documentary with the first section originally meant for another project and it develops over time. They did want to provide more of a definition of what folk horror is at the start but felt it did not fit with all the films that they mention. Also the questions the director asked people changed over the course of putting together the documentary from just listing movie to more the basis behind them.

This could easily have been a book and hopefully there will be some reference materials to go along with it. I did enjoy all the synopsis of the moves in the House of Psychotic Women book.

Recommended if you are already a fan of the horror genre and everyone else if you have enjoyed the revival period of folk horror such as Hereditary, the Witch and Midsommar to see the roots of how these films came about.

Q&A with the director at SXSW 2021

Film details:

Director: Kier-La Janisse

Producers: Kier-La Janisse, David Gregory, Winnie Cheung

Screenwriter: Kier-La Janisse

Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, Piers Haggard, Abraham Castillo Flores, Adam Scovell, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alice Lowe, Amanda Reyes, Gail-Nina Anderson, Mariano Baino, Geraldine Beskin, Richard Blackburn, Darren Charles, Lawrence Gordon Clark, Ian Cooper, John Cussans, Laura Loguércio Cánepa, Samm Deighan, Mattie Do, Sam Dunn, Jeremy Dyson, Robert Eggers, Kat Ellinger, William Fowler, Katrin Gebbe, Lindsay Hallam, Bruce G. Hallenbeck, Sean Hogan, Mitch Horowitz, Howard David Ingham, Kier-La Janisse, Briony Kidd, Chad Crawford Kinkle, Mikel Koven, Bernice M. Murphy, Ian Ogilvy, Dejan Ognjanovic, Andy Paciorek, Mark Pilkington, Vic Pratt, Carlos Primati, Dennison Ramalho, Jonathan Rigby, John Leman Riley, Jasper Sharp, Kali Simmons, Teresa Sutherland, Emma Tammi, Pete Tombs, Sam L. Waymon, Jesse Wente, Maisha Wester, Robert Wynne-Simmons

Cinematographers: Jim Kunz, Sarah Appleton, Jacqueline Castel, Neil Edwards, Iain Marcks

Editors: Winnie Cheung, Benjamin Shearn

Composer: Jim Williams

Collages for animated sequences: Guy Maddin

Animators: Zena Grey, Brendt Rioux, Ashley Thorpe

Genre: Feature Documentary, Horror

Length: 3h 12m

Country: United States

Language: English, Portuguese, with English subtitles

World Sales: Severin Films

About the Author

Writer, photographer, artist and music fan from Melbourne, Australia.

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