Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021) at Fantasia

Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror has its Canadian première on demand at Fantasia 2021

The Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror begins with horror scholar Jonathan Rigby stating that he believed he coined the term ‘folk horror’ in 2006 (in his book American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema), and resurrected it for the 2010 three-part documentary series A History of Horror that he made with Mark Gatiss – so he was surprised to discover that the phrase had a long, if sporadic, history, going back at least to Oscar James Campbell, a Shakespearean scholar who used it in 1936 to describe Bürger‘s Eighteenth-century German ballads (Rigby will appear at semi-regular intervals throughout the feature tracking other uses of the phrase in the intervening decades). Even as a partially defined label, ‘folk horror’ has been with us longer than you might think – and as a phenomenon, it has been here even longer.

It is the perfect introduction to a documentary which begins with popular conceptions, before painting a more complex picture full of correctives, adjustments, the odd contradiction and endless nuance. It is a polyphonic affair, with contributions from a multitude of scholars, filmmakers and historians (far too numerous to name in this review, but all articulate and authoritative), and although the film’s writer/director Kier-La Janisse occasionally herself appears to provide her own typically incisive commentary, she is careful to make her voice just one amongst many, each carrying equal weight in an ongoing dialectic on the subject. The first of the documentary’s (six) formally demarcated chapters examines ‘the unholy trinity’ of Michael ReevesWitchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) that are often held to be the genre’s ground zero – and the second chapter examines the key characteristics of other British folk horror from the time, while the third focuses on the figure of the witch (the most dangerous of horror’s monsters because, as film historian Kat Ellinger observes with a wicked laugh, “she represents feminine world takeover”). 

Yet even the conventional view that places circa-Seventies Britain at the epicentre of folk horror comes in for questioning here, as the rest of the film looks not just to folk horror’s peculiar instantiations further afield (in America, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Eastern Europe, Italy and Finland)  – but also includes in its vast filmography (a veritable treasure trove for the viewer’s wishlist) quite a few features made years before the British trinity. The fourth and longest chapter, on American folk horror, recognises the form as a way of exploring the after-effects of religious radicalism and schism (and of course the witch trials) in early New England, anxieties about colonial predations of Indigenous populations (“It’s all an Indian burial ground,” as First Nations journalist Jesse Wente says of America), “the haunting of slave history and in particular of slave rebellion” (as academic Maisha Wester puts it), and the folk figure of the ‘hillbilly’ (part product of very real social deprivation and isolation, part constructed projection of atavistic otherness). 

Episode five looks at global variants on folk horror, especially in disinterring the repressed indigenous spirits that haunt colonial powers, the massacres and genocides on which modernity has been built, or the lost ethnographies of Sovietised states. Finally the sixth episode looks not just at the recent revival of folk horror (at a time when the term has entered popular discourse), but also suggests reasons for this sudden renaissance. Critic Jasper Sharp puts it down to the urbanised nature of today’s global culture, where “what goes on in the countryside is automatically shrouded in darkness, it’s hidden from view”, while Mark Pilkington (Strange Attractor Press) and Howard David Ingham (We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, 2018) both suggest that the same conditions – a damaged US President, political chaos in the UK and environmental anxieties – which all dominated the early Seventies have returned to curse the second half of the 2010s, engendering a similar kind of cinema.

The paradox of Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is that, for all its exhaustive scope and razor-sharp analysis, it operates at the level of suggestion rather than assertion, requiring the viewer to join in synthesising its many points of view on a subject which will, after all, prove as elusive and resistant to ‘scientific’ study as the ancient spirits that typically populate its films. Even something so simple-seeming as a definition of folk horror is in fact diffused across the film’s three hours and 12 minutes, as theories are interrogated and altered to suit different times, places and cultural contexts.

Although it has connections to the earth and the countryside, to folklore and ritual, to old ways and gods, and to the uncanny, layered coexistence of past and present, and although it often exposes tensions of religion, gender, race, class and ecology, folk horror remains a highly flexible form. Near the end, it is even suggested by author Adam Scovell (Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, 2017) that folk horror is less a genre than a vaguer ‘mode’ of filmmaking. Indeed the whole tone of Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is one of tentative exploration, delivering less a conclusive statement than a challenging question about what folk horror is and does, and why it comes back at certain times of crisis. Carefully edited (by Winnie Cheung and Benjamin Shearn) to maintain a compelling throughline across some very disparate materials, Janisse’s dizzying, encyclopaedic documentary  is punctuated by beautifully creepy paper collage sequences from Guy Maddin, and (naturally) by a selection of sinister folk songs and poems. Viewers will emerge keen to excavate more of cinema’s past than they ever knew existed, and to watch – or at least rewatch – these films with fresh eyes.

strap: Kier-La Janisse’s documentary on folk horror’s origins, attributes and effects is a dizzyingly exhaustive, if exploratory, country trip

© Anton Bitel