Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched A History of Folk Horror - New Release Review
Director: Kier-La Janisse
Contributors: Kevin Kölsch, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Dennis Widmyer, Piers Haggard, Bernice M. Murphy and many more
Written by: Kier-La Janisse
Produced by: Winnie Cheung, Kier-La Janisse
Original Score by: Jim Williams
An expansive three hour documentary exclusive to Shudder exploring the folk horror phenomenon from it's humbling beginnings of The Unholy Trinity, through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s, it's culturally specific manifestations throughout the world to the genre's revival over the last decade.
I am going to recommend this documentary to everyone I know. I don’t care whether they like horror films or not. This documentary is so much more than a ‘horror doc’: it’s about politics, race, culture, nationalism, identity, religion, the past, the present. This documentary showcases not only everything I love about folk horror but cinema itself, as a powerful medium of expression, communication, and reflection.
This 3-hour long documentary (yes, you read that right) opens with beautiful, retro-style shots of woods in bright sunlight, a haunting voiceover reciting a poem about the landscape. The content that follows is split into 6 chronological and manageable chunks: What folk horror is, cinematic signposts, the influence of witchcraft and paganism, American folk horror, folk horror around the world, and its contemporary revival. It features an extensive variety of clips from the films being discussed, footage of rural landscapes, artistic drawings and animations, and historical documents and photographs. A fantastic selection of authors, directors, screenwriters, film journalists, and academics weigh in on the origins, themes, aesthetics, meaning, and power of folk horror throughout each section.
Part One outlines what folk horror is and some of its varying and changing definitions. At their very basic, folk horror films are about traditions of old, the return of the past, the conflict between modernity and simpler ways of living. These films are usually set in rural landscapes, feature close-knit communities who have strange, old-fashioned beliefs, and are often violence. Nature, however, is the heart of folk horror; as Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle says, these communities love, fear, rely on and, when required, appease nature. This 1st part sets the scene by exploring what is known among horror fans as The Unholy Trinity, three films which epitomises this kind of horror film: 'Blood on Satan’s Claw', 'Witchfinder General', and 'The Wicker Man'. Ask someone who isn’t into horror what comes to mind when you say folk horror and they’ll likely say 'The Wicker Man' (or more recently 'Midsommar', which has a similar vibe). Before diving into Part Two, 'The Wicker Man' director Robin Hardy notes that horror films before the 1960s were lacking something: old religion. Cinema’s horror was dominated by Universal’s Monsters, Hammer Horror’s gothic and melodramatic period pieces, and the Atomic Age’s anxiety about the evolution of science and space exploration. Those who were into folk horror wanted something truly terrifying and for them, that was the idea of regular, everyday folk who upheld beliefs of bygone eras.
Part Two explores the origins of folk horror and key films that influenced the development of the mode. Most folk horror is derived from Britain, where our landscape was a critical part of our lives in the past. This part of the documentary gets into the influence of the likes of ghost story writers MR James and Algernon Blackwood for creating viscerally real, earthy ghosts that seemed tied to the physicality of their environment. It explores the notion of being connected to our environment and how it soaks up traditions and beliefs, how it impacts us psychologically and influences our behaviour. It’s all about the bloody history of Britain buried beneath and façade of cruelty. Alice Lowe, writer/director/actress, when reflecting on an adaptation of 'Whistle and I’ll Come to You', hits the nail on the head when it comes to why folk horror is so damn creepy: “how do you conquer something like that when it’s not part of your belief system?"
Part Three was my favourite. It’s probably because I identify as a cis-female, but I’ve always been drawn to witches. To me, they represent feminine power and feminine spirit. They were liberated people who didn’t bow to the pressures of the patriarchy. As such, witches and paganism were crucial to the development of folk horror. As I previously mentioned, horror up until the 60s was pretty much male-dominated: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, you name it. But by the 1960s, with the liberating hippie movement fighting for women’s reproductive rights, witchcraft and paganism became a way for women to reconnect with themselves and the world around them. It freed them from the modern, urbanisation of the 50s, the screw-ups of the male-dominated governments who were incompetent and yet somehow still in charge of what women could and couldn’t do. Folk horror placed women at the centre of the screen, at the centre of the action, be they good or bad characters, and that was powerful and refreshing. The documentary points out that the suffragette movement, particularly in the US, was tied with the rise of spiritualism which was, you guessed it, headlined by women. Women and the occult go hand in hand, and that scares men (apologies to my fellow Fright Club writers). Witchcraft and paganism are about women’s connection to nature and feminine power, and folk horror often brings that to the forefront of their stories.
Parts Four and Five explore folk horror around the world. I loved this part, especially the focus on American Southern Gothic because it is a mode that cannot be separated from its connection to the landscape, so it was cool to see it acknowledged and the stories of Haitian voodoo practitioners in the Southern states be given the screentime they deserve. Part Five’s focus was on Australian, eastern European and Asian folk horror, and it was particularly fascinating to learn that European folk horror tends to focus on literal folklore and fairytales.
The final part – ‘Revival’ – looks at why folk horror is on the rise again. Folk horror emerged from turbulent and frightening times; the Vietnam war, political scandals, religious upheaval…sound familiar? Folk horror is on the rise because we are living in frightening, pessimistic times – Covid, political scandal, terrorism, climate change and environmental destruction, you name it. It feels like anything could happen, and not in a good way. Folk horror helps us explore the power of everyday folk and our relationship with our environment. In an odd way, it grounds us. Folk horror lives on, as the last line of the documentary says, because “these films have a soul” and that’s what people need right now.
My to-be-watched list is now very long and I am very happy about it.
- Victoria Brown