Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England

This horror documentary succeeds with a carefully considered selection and handling of the material.

Synopsis: Director George Popov presents a journey through three of England’s most haunted forests, exploring a trove of frightening tales, myths and folklore.

A good documentary should, in theory, teach you something new, or at least introduce you to characters or events that are worth knowing about and offer one view of them. Many documentaries (and I would argue some narrative fiction too) struggle with either having too little material or so much that it becomes impossible to cover it in any meaningful way. Sideworld happily swerves both of these issues, choosing three locations and keeping the amount of content manageable.

As you would hope from a documentary exploring these often liminal spaces of dark forests the photography is excellent and really situates the viewer within the locations. This adds considerably to the atmosphere of the entire film, as well as becoming evocative of its wider themes. Director George Popov’s narration is stabilising and consistent, befitting a spooky, fireside telling of ghost stories without tipping over into caricature or being insincere. This has the effect of enhancing the stories being told, often accompanied by illustrations. The sound design is inspired, taking initial cues from the setting and seamlessly blending it into the music in early sections.

While I would certainly consider myself a sceptic, this is still compelling work with well-researched stories surfacing with punchlines in place. The eyewitness testimony (presented via voiceover by actors) does slightly less for me, but nonetheless adds further texture to the film. What is perhaps more interesting from my perspective are the ponderings about what continues to prompt the feelings of unease in these areas, touching on reported tragedies. The idea of these areas becoming self-fulfilling prophecies offers something more to those who are not as interested in hauntings as much as the reality of the spaces.

In taking on Dartmoor, Cannock Chase and Epping Forest, the film is able to explore the similarities and differences between the kind of hauntings that they inspire. Adding to the film’s overall concept that these spaces have stories that are based on folklore, cautionary tales specific to the area as well as the more concrete realities of the area, each section offers something different while the overall style of the documentary retains cohesion. The use of voiceover, illustration and long shots of forests makes this feel economical, not needing to engage in anything more elaborate due to the strength of the content.

Importantly, the film comes in at around 70 minutes, offering more than adequate space for the stories to come to life while also acknowledging that any longer would likely be a test of the format. That sense of restraint and self-awareness is a real strength of the film.

A gripping documentary that is a must-see for those interested in the kind of ‘haunted geography’ of English forests and one that certainly has something to offer non-believers too.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Sideworld is now available to rent or buy on Prime Video

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.

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