REVIEW: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021)

dir. Kier-La Janisse

Since its debut at SXSW 2021 the reputation of this three-hour-plus documentary has preceded it, with director Janisse – hitherto most famous as the founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and author of The House of Psychotic Women – crafting a thorough overview of the history folk horror.

The documentary starts by focusing on a triptych much-discussed late-60s / early-70s British films – Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw (for which this was first planned as a DVD extra) and The Wicker Man – but the depth and breadth of works covered is remarkable. From the proliferation of films and TV shows that followed in Britain to the culturally specific variants of folk horror across the globe, every possible iteration is examined.

And it’s not just the sheer number of films included in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (with clips used for many): Janisse’s documentary has over 50 talking heads, from the writers and directors behind many of these films (hello to Alice Lowe and Robert Eggers) to academics who’ve attempted to define this elusive subgenre. Each offers fascinating insight into the specific works, the themes within and the wider context (the film effectively pivoting in its climax to link modern day back to the social, cultural and economic strife of the 70s). Because of the indefinability of folk horror (which isn’t like zombies or slashers, which have a mostly-defined set of oft repeated tropes) there is a fascinating discussion to be had, with the argument made that we are dealing less with a subgenre of horror and more of a mode of it.

Separated into six chapters, Janisse’s ambitious film will be perhaps a tad too sprawling for some viewers in one sitting, and there is certainly a difficulty curve here: as we move from the familiarity of The Witch, Candyman or Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the likes of Kuroneko, The Noonday Witch and The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe, some may be left with an over-abundance of information and a very long watch list to explore.

Still, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a rewarding deep-dive, a breath-taking exercise in defining, framing and understanding an increasingly relevant movement. We take in witches, Indian burial grounds, the La Lorna myth and a whole host of conventions that will leave audiences eager to continue their journey: one which will almost certainly involve a revisit to this definitive doc as an unrivalled source of expertise on its subject matter.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Russell Bailey

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