Movies & TV / Reviews

Fantasia 2021: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched Review

August 6, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Woodlands Dark and Days BewitchedL A History of Folk Horror
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Fantasia 2021: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched Review  

Directed by: Kier-La Janisse
Written by: Kier-La Janisse
Running Time: 194 minutes
Not Rated

The rise in horror filmmaking over the past few years has brought with it a particular delight: a similar rise in movies about horror. Documentaries about the genre have been everywhere (okay, largely on Shudder), with the In Search of Darkness series, Scream, Queen! and Horror Noir joining standbys like Crystal Lake Memories and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. And I, for my part, can’t get enough of them. Horror has always been a disrespected genre, and films like these shine a light on the gems (and not-so-gems) that deserve to be discussed.

Now, a new subgenre enters that field with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. Kier-La Janisse’s expansive documentary, which is screening at Fantasia Fest 2021, looks into the woods and behind the shed to explore the history of an important category of horror, to great results.

The term “folk horror” may have gained new prominence with films like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but folk elements have been a part or horror narratives for far longer than that. Janisse’s film takes us back to the origins of folk horror – not only the coining of the term, but in its birth as a film genre and even as a fiction genre in general. This three-hour behemoth of knowledge starts with the granddaddies of folk horror’s filmic origins in The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan’s Claw and then builds out from there with chapters looking at British folk horror as the “signposts” of the genre, paganism and witchcraft, folk horror around the world (both American and otherwise), and the recent revival.

Considering the runtime, it’s not hard to point out that there is plenty to discuss here and Janisse puts her camera on the right people to discuss it. It’s largely a scholarly discussion that veers away from the jauntier approach of films like In Search of Darkness, but it’s certainly never boring. Sure, on the surface a three-hour film that leans on film historians and academics to discuss what are often slow-burn horror films may not sound like a pulse-pounder, but Janisse keeps things moving along remarkably fast for the running time and it never bogs down in its informed approach.

Part of the joy of this film is discovering new movies you’ve never heard of. Most people – or at least, horror advocates – know movies like The Wicker Man, Lake Mungo, Pumpkinhead, and Eve’s Bayou. However, all but the most absolute knowledgeable are likely find themselves writing down films to look up later in this. It’s an extensive list that numbers over 200 titles, and there is almost certainly something new for someone with even a passing interest in the genre to seek out whether from the UK, America, or a wide birth of countries around the world.

One of the more compelling parts of Woodlands Dark is the way Janisse and her talking heads frame the conversation. Folk horror is sometimes a difficult thing to quantify, and the film puts impressively together a well-argued definition without actually reducing it to a series of tropes or motifs. It also points out how pervasive the genre has become, whether in UK broadcasting like Doctor Who and the Ghost Story for Christmas films or in Southern gothic storytelling in the US, tales of the conflict between Indigenous people and colonization literally everywhere, and of course the conflict between rural communities and urbanization. One person describes it as less of a codified genre and more of “a mode in a musical sense, providing keynotes and context.” It’s not inaccurate and yet, as Janisse clearly shows here, that doesn’t mean its so nebulous as to lack meaning.

Admittedly, just a series of talking heads for three hours would get boring no matter how interesting the topics they’re covering, and Janisse is cognizant of that. Thus, we get the expected clips from many of the film’s discussed, but also some creative sequences involving – true to the genre’s nature – collages and an ominous score that Jim Williams – known for such horror favorites as Raw, Kill List, and last year’s Possessor – provides. They add a strong mood to a substantive discussion that may not quite appeal to those who don’t find at least some level of appeal in the topic but offers everything even vague folk horror fans could want.

The Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in person and online from August 5th through August 25th

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
If you've ever had even a passing interest in the concept of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is a must-see. Kier-La Janisse has compiled an exhaustive documentary that delves deep into the subgenre and is tailor-made to give horror fans new viewing picks to fill up their watchlists. It's a brilliant and engaging discussion of one of horror's most influential subgenres, and one that will hopefully get a chance to be seen by more people soon.