This is an advance review posted out of the SXSW Film Festival.
While most horror fans can name at least one folk horror film (most likely a British film like The Wicker Man), there is very little consensus regarding what exactly does or doesn’t constitute a folk horror film. That’s where Kier-La Janisse and her documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror come in, as production company Severin Films takes a subject that may be familiar for horror fans and then explores it so in-depth that you start to realize how little you actually knew.
The film tracks the origin of what we call folk horror, focusing on just how loosely that term is defined. Sure, there’s the trifecta of British films — 1968’s Witchfinder General, 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and 1973’s The Wicker Man — that is largely accepted to be the height of the sub-genre, but even then those films have very little in common other than a countryside setting and a plot involving paganism or the supernatural. What Woodlands Dark does is not to give a proper definition or label for the sub-genre, but rather to prove that folk horror is more than just tropes and a setting; it’s a tone, a feeling, something that isn’t clearly described, and maybe shouldn’t be. At its best, the documentary teaches about how folk horror can be used to explore different fears that change and evolve across borders and decades, commenting on the darker aspects of humanity like nationalism, classism, and colonialism to reflect and instruct about the cultural context of a given film or show.
Woodlands Dark is mostly told through archival footage of over 200 films intercut with talking-head interviews with over 50 filmmakers, scholars, film festival programmers, and journalists from different countries providing not only cultural and historical context but personal anecdotes and insights that paint a fascinating picture of how universal and expansive folk horror is — reinforcing the idea that it’s more than just a label to put on a film and call it a day. Through the interviews, the film explores many movies you wouldn’t instantly associate with folk horror, but share enough elements that it’s hard not to see them as such — like 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its exploration of the cultural divide between the urban and the rural, or even 1992’s Candyman and its focus on a folkloric monster and psychogeography (how much of the action and character behavior happens because of the Cabrini Green projects setting).
If there’s something to complain about here, it’s in the choice of interview subjects. Though Woodlands Dark makes the effort to explore folk horror in many cultures and countries across every continent, a bit less of an effort is put into finding guests from said cultures that can talk with an added layer of cultural context. During a segment exploring Brazilian horror, focusing on the relationship between the genre and the history of racial and religious tensions against the Afro-Brazilian population, not a single Afro-Brazilian is seen explaining the different religions that so deeply affect the stories told through folk horror in the country. It’s not a huge distraction, but with the film seemingly so concerned about representing films from different cultures and countries, it’s hard not to feel like there was an opportunity missing to have interviews with people who actually belong to those communities.
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This may be Kier-La Janisse’s first feature-length film, but you wouldn’t realize that based on the quality of this documentary. This is a massive endeavor, clocking at just over 3 hours, but it essentially serves as the best college course about the history, significance, and future of the folk horror genre. Woodlands Dark is cleverly split up into six distinct title parts, exploring the origins of the genre, its spread in popularity, how much of it is connected to witchcraft, as well as the international versions of it, and how the genre has resurfaced in recent years.
These segments are separated by beautifully animated sequences illustrating the pagan imagery and the folk tales featured in the films. Likewise, the documentary features a terrific soundtrack by Jim Williams, who is certainly not a stranger to folk horror, having scored films like Kill List and A Field in England. The score, as well as the original songs he writes for the film, do a fantastic job in creating a creepy atmosphere and easing the transitions between the talking-head interviews and the movie footage.
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