FANTASIA FEST 2021: A Thorough History of Our Oldest Fears in ‘Woodlands Dark…’

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Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched A History of Folk Horror

In their behemoth documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, writer and director Keir-La Janisse guides viewers through a comprehensive overview of the films that created, defined, and refined our ideas of folk horror. No stone is left unturned as Woodlands Dark explores folk horror through its most prominent eras, locales, and cultural moments. Bolstered by an impressive array of expert interviews–historians, occult experts, classic and next-generation filmmakers, and other genre enthusiasts–Woodlands Dark is incredibly thorough, expertly stitched together, and endlessly fascinating.

The origin of folk horror can be found in the homeland of many cultural horrors: England. To lay the foundation for the audience’s understanding of folk horror, Woodlands Dark points to an “unholy trinity” of films that are touted as the forefathers of the subgenre. These wicked three would be Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and the original 1973 The Wicker Man (not to be confused with the later film made famous by a particularly deranged performance from Nicolas Cage). The three aforementioned films uphold the basic pillars of folk horror. The setting of a remote community in close commune with nature. Bygone ritual, often connected to paganism, to combat fears of the unknown. The focus is on women as either vessels of ancient, horrific power or eroticized victims of wickedness.

Using the lens of space and place is crucial in understanding why folk horror is as vast and varied as it is. Yes, there are some essential elements that most folk horror films have in common. However, so much of folk horror is informed by where it was created and what moment in time it is responding to. Woodlands Dark begins its dissection of folk horror in the roots of English folk horror on film but then expands its scope globally to encompass folk horror in other cultures.

A key example of this distinction can be found in the difference between English folk horror and its American counterpart. England’s history is much older and, therefore, most English horror films are framed as modern-day folks stumbling upon the surviving remnants of the conquered pagans. In American folk horror, the focus is slightly different. Woodlands Dark asserts that a vital ingredient of American folk horror is colonialism. More classic formulas, The Witch, for example, tells the story of colonists preyed upon, seduced, and overcome by the wildness of the New World. Those stories focus on the American experience of entering a world and having the new landscape fight back and consume.

Further, a great deal of American folk horror focuses on Native Americans. How often has “an Indian burial ground” been the focus of a horror film? Woodlands Dark reminds us that there is no such thing as a simple “Indian burial ground.” Rather, there are the remains of tribes and peoples that have been blended up in a shoddily forged American identity. This highlights America’s own complicated past and the anxieties that have grown from it. The English fear the pockets that have yet to be conquered, Americans fear the wildness of a land that we took and the anxiety that someday it may come back for us.

As with all horror, folk horror reacts to the politics and social norms of the moment. Gender, always a figure in horror discussions, finds a home in the narrative of witches and priestesses. Alongside political discussions of history and colonialism comes the more contemporary notion of folklore always being an answer to the unknown. Our legends and old ways existed in a time when mankind was content not knowing all the answers. Likewise, horror films–and people–turn to folklore when the world feels less certain.

This is what Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror understands perfectly. The documentary is so much more than an intensive course in the origins and growth of an increasingly popular horror subgenre. More importantly, the film is a masterclass in the function of folklore in human history. Through the example of films, we are given illustration after illustration of how humans have clung to folklore and legends in times of growth and change.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is an essential text for enthusiasts of all stripes. Whether a viewer is a history buff, a genre devotee, or a socially occupied scholar, Woodlands Dark compiles an impressive list of resources and voices to unpack one of the great pop culture phenomena. A gold standard for documentary filmmaking.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror made its Canadian Premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
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TL;DR

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is an essential text for enthusiasts of all stripes. Whether a viewer is a history buff, a genre devotee, or a socially occupied scholar, Woodlands Dark compiles an impressive list of resources and voices to unpack one of the great pop culture phenomena. A gold standard for documentary filmmaking.