Folk horror has made a strong mark in fright-fare cinema around the world. Often depicting “enlightened” protagonists from the modern world being jarringly confronted by ancient beliefs and traditions, the subgenre has long endured as it shines a light on contemporary philosophies with “stranger in a strange land” — or at least in highly unusual circumstances — settings. Severin Films’ Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror takes a deep dive into the subgenre. At a running time of 194 minutes — which fly by, in case you are wondering — and with six chapters that encompass hundreds of titles from film and television, as well as literary sources, the documentary is best viewed with a pad and pen handy, as it unfolds a tantalizing array of works that viewers will want to add to their must-see lists.
Kier-La Janisse — whose impressive credits include founding international horror school The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and writing the books A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) — makes an admirable directorial debut with this stunning documentary. She has gathered a wide range of genre film experts — including Diabolique Magazine’s own Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan — filmmakers, scholars, writers, and other luminaries to give a cinematic version of a master class on the topic. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror also features hundreds of clips ranging from classic films to lesser-known television programs.
The documentary kicks off with a look at the “Unholy Trinity” that makes up perhaps the best-known entries of the subgenre: Witchfinder General (a U.K.–U.S. coproduction; 1968), Blood On Satan’s Claw (U.K.; 1970) and The Wicker Man (U.K.; 1973) before a long, satisfying look at U.K. folk horror. It then turns its focus from the countrysides, islands, and forests of the U.K. to the cornfields, backwoods, and Deep South of U.S. folk horror, moving on to explore traditions from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and other locales. Horror films involving native and indigenous peoples from the U.S. and Australia are also examined. The differences and similarities between “the old ways” around the world is fascinating, as are the cinematic approaches to folk horror from all of these places, including when stories involve ancient traditions being brought from one country to another.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror offers much more than a trip around the world, though. It also tackles difficulties in the subgenre. One of many such interesting topics is the dismantling of tropes, such as the old “Indian burial ground” chestnut. The documentary does a fine job of separating historical fact from cinematic traditions in this way.
The three hours plus of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror rush by, and some elements feel as though they could use more time. That would head toward this effort becoming a miniseries rather than the documentary it is, though. As it stands, the film is a valentine to a horror subgenre that has a cult following of its own, a near-exhaustive primer for those new to this cinematic world, and an excellent refresher course for those already strongly familiar with folk horror. Like Severin Films’ previous documentary Tales of the Uncanny: The Ultimate Survey of Anthology Horror, this is an effort of the highest quality that gets my strongest recommendation.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror screened as part of SXSW Online 2021, which ran from March 16–20, 2021.