It’s cool to make a documentary about a topic that can compel a broad audience at almost any time (adorable penguins, let’s say, or Mr. Rogers). Even cooler to make a documentary about the right topic at the right time so that it lands on the crest of a cultural wave. Xavier Burgin’s Horror Noire (2019) was largely based on the 2011 book of the same name by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman. In theory, it could have been made at any point after 2011. As it happened, the 2017 release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out had created a cornucopia of new conversations about how horror films speak to (and about) Black Americans. Those conversations refreshed the context for Dr. Coleman’s scholarship and gave the documentary a general air of good timing.
Most impressive is what Kier-la Janisse has achieved with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a documentary about folk horror. Is folk horror having a moment? It was definitely having a moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the “unholy trinity” of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man were released. And there have been fresh conversations around folk horror in the wake of The Witch and Midsommar. The beauty of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is that it is a folk horror moment. It’s not just a celebration of the sub-genre; it’s not merely surfing in on a cultural wave. It’s creating its own good timing.
Back in May 2018, Kier-la Janisse was working for the production company Severin Films as Severin was preparing a new blu-ray release of Blood on Satan’s Claw. Her original idea was to make a half-hour bonus feature giving some background on the film as part of the British folk horror tradition. Everyone who has ever made a documentary has hit a point where they realize they have vastly more material than they can cover in the time they have. In this case, Severin supported Janisse in expanding the scope of the research. The bonus feature grew until it became the three-hour opus that is Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (I’m tempted to abbreviate the title WDADB, but really I'm charmed by the fact that the film has such a hand-crafted feel that it has a truly evocative and original title).
Like most documentaries about movies, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is largely composed of interviews and clips. Over 50 people are interviewed in the film, and they include not only people who make movies and people who write about movies, but passionate thinkers from around the world and from a range of social positions. The Atlantis Bookshop in London has been around since 1922, and Geraldine Beskin, its co-owner, is a 4th-generation practitioner of occult arts; she’s interviewed for her perspective on the contemporary significance of the kind of pagan practices that sometimes are the object of terror in horror films. A First Nations journalist from Canada, Jesse Wente, gives a highly humorous and penetrating commentary on the trope (in U.S. horror) of blaming supernatural incursions on “ancient Indian burial grounds.”
There are also clips from over 200 movies and tv productions, interwoven with the commentary in a fluid and occasionally ingenious ways, and not only with the interviews: the film also incorporates assorted archival material, music, animated sequences, poetry, folk songs, and the occasional scrap of fresh location footage. The resulting movie is scholarly and provocative, while also being an aesthetic experience in its own right, soulful and evocative.
Janisse was the right person for this unexpected challenge. She has prominence as a writer and essayist; her most famous book, House of Psychotic Women, is a fusion of memoir and film criticism and genre theory. She has created fanzines, programmed film series for various theaters, and founded Winnipeg's Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. More than an encyclopedic knowledge of the horror genre, Janisse had an awareness of and curiosity about the larger social significance of horror movies and how audiences enjoy them and interpret them.
The “unholy trinity,” for example, suggest the tension at the heart of British folk horror: there's an unease about old customs and being close to the land, a fear of ancient superstitions and cults, but there's also an unease about the structures of authority that tend to steamroll over folklore and old customs and homogenize the culture. This tension is explored throughout the rest of the film.
After introducing the concept and discussing the “unholy trinity,” Janisse backs up and takes in the full context of UK folk horror, going back to the short stories of M.R. James. In the UK, you might have some haunted house stories, generally there's nowhere to build a house where the land itself isn't already laden with emotionally fraught history. This is where the themes of “psychogeography” and “hauntology” come into play. In our lives, we not only have to navigate our relationships with our own histories, and the histories of the land where we live, but navigate the tensions and conflicts that arise between the people around us, not only in their present identities, but in the ways they are haunted in different ways by their histories. Just as horror movies generally help us cope with unspoken anxieties, folk horror movies have particular things to say about our anxieties about coming to terms with buried secrets and forgotten practices and beliefs that continue to haunt us.
Having untangled some of these threads in the UK, the film goes on to discuss North American folk horror and the way these threads manifest themselves here. The longest section of the film brings this lens to the world, discussing Australia, Brazil, Mexico and other countries. At one point, the film pivots from talking about the historical context for the Polish/Israeli film Demon to showing common elements in the French/Guatemalan film La Llorona, with its own distinct context. This part of the film gets a bit dizzying. It’s eye-opening, but also probably too dense to really take in on a first viewing. Janisse and company have already demonstrated that to understand the full arc of how a culture expresses its tensions and ambivalences about its own land and history through folk horror can take up to an hour for just one country. So the idea of doing a whirlwind tour of a bunch of countries (five minutes here, ten minutes there) seems a little foolish.
Even so, when the only frustrating element of the film is that it is occasionally too rich and too stimulating, we’ve got something special on our hands. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is that rare creature, a passion multiplier. It will satisfy the audience’s enthusiasm for horror movies while expanding their enthusiasm to encompass a number of titles never before known to them.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is available as part of an enormous boxed set (12 discs, 19 films) from Severin, and will be coming to Shudder this month.
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