This expansive documentary still leaves some ground to explore in this loving look at folk horror.
Synopsis: WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED explores the folk horror phenomenon from its beginnings in a trilogy of films – Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s and its culturally specific manifestations in American, Asian, Australian and European horror, to the genre’s revival over the last decade. Touching on over 200 films and featuring over 50 interviewees, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED investigates the many ways that we alternately celebrate, conceal and manipulate our own histories in an attempt to find spiritual resonance in our surroundings.
Folk horror feels like a term that has been around forever, but as highlighted early on within Woodlands the terminology itself is fairly new in comparison to the films that have come to define it. The term itself remains slightly woolly despite the attempts to narrow what ‘folk’ is and some of the films included for their ‘folky’ elements may well raise an eyebrow, even when contributors state their case clearly and eloquently.
With a runtime of over three hours, it still feels like the documentary has more to offer. The numerous contributors sometimes get lost in the shuffle and the need to put visual elements front and centre while someone speaks in the background occasionally make it difficult to track who is saying what. That is a fairly mild complaint however, given the vast array of knowledge on display. While poetry recitations from Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy are a nice touch, given the pair’s contributions to some of the most iconic folk horror titles, there are moments where it feels like filler, or even interval, transitional elements that draw out the sections a little longer.
The involvement of Severin Films echoes their Tales of the Uncanny that focused on the anthology horror and the pace of reference points is similar here. Even armed with pen and paper, you would struggle to capture everything featured here. Along with the ‘unholy trinity’ that everyone is familiar with, the documentary showcases deeper cuts, with time carved out for exploration of Black folklore and the detailing of folk narratives from other countries too. This diversion from the traditionally very white spaces that folk horror tends to present is a welcome one, although it does feel like there is almost a further documentary dedicated only to that. That folklore ideas and traditions find similar themes across geographies is an interesting one, with changes to exact elements functioning to ‘make it local’.
Perhaps the best cover-all explanation of what ‘folk horror’ is comes from the statement that it is ‘something surviving in spite of the dominant culture’. The social and cultural history of folk horror rests on times of conservatism and upheaval, so this documentary feels incredibly well-timed in terms of exploring how films may begin to reflect the times in which they are being made by reflecting insular cultures and rituals. The tantalising glimpses of some films within the documentary’s collage sections give a hint of those that are perhaps not quite as well-known or regarded within the canon, but could be, given enough eyes on them.
Despite a long runtime, Woodlands never runs out of things to say and there is perhaps an argument for a longer, even two-part version that allows for further exploration of some elements. Kier-La Janisse brings her expansive, knowledgeable eye honed in books like House of Psychotic Women to the screen in a way that feels satisfying, even if not the final word.
4 out of 5 stars