SXSW Review: ‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’

Kier-La Janisse’sWoodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror debuted last night at SXSW. At over three hours long and including references to well over 150 films, this is easily the most exhaustive look at the subgenre we’ve ever seen.

Janisse comes to the subject with serious credentials of her own as founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, editor-in-chief of Spectacular Optical, and author of books like House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films and Exploitation Films.  She brings her vast knowledge along with a group of some 50 filmmakers, historians, and authors to the documentary to cover a subject in horror that is often vastly underrated.

The journey of this project begins with a look at three films in particular: 1968’s Witchfinder General, 1971’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, and 1973’s The Wicker Man. While they are vastly different in both time period and focus, they all have that folkloric edge to them, digging into themes of witchcraft, paganism, and what is ancient vs. what is new.

This sets the tone for much of the discussion throughout the documentary and provides a sort of litmus test for what is and isn’t “folk horror.” The definition is surprisingly much wider than some might think. In fact, most would relegate the subgenre to bucolic settings filled with mystic figures, strange symbols, and old religion versus new. Yet, as the film points out, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a potent and powerful example of folk horror, and one that I was pleased to see included in the discussion.

The film is at its most fascinating, for me, however, when it leaves behind Western Culture and explores folk horror from Asian countries and cultures as well as indigenous stories from Australia and Mexico.

This is, as previously state, an exhaustive study on a subgenre that I personally love. Whether we’re talking about newer films like Midsommar and The Witch or digging into classic films like The Company of Wolves and the aforementioned The Wicker Man, these films pull at latent fears of predatory spirits and entities long-forgotten or worse, relegated to fairy stories in modern society that still exists within us.

The list of films covered here come from every corner of the world, and the documentary breaks down each section under different subheadings, grouping films and subjects and cultures together for a more effective cohesive documentary.

There were moments, however, when the density of the subjects covered and the sheer amount of films mentioned almost work against Janisse.

Honestly, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched would be better served by being broken up as a docu-series rather than one long film, and perhaps that is how we’ll see it as a larger/wider release after its festival run. The subject matter deserves to be thought out and discussed. In a home viewing you can do this anytime you want, of course, but during festival screenings it’s a huge time commitment with a lot of information that will no doubt leave some viewers just a tad dazed as the final credits roll.

Despite this, the documentary remains a must-see for fans of folk horror. You will not find a more extensive collection of titles–I made notes throughout for films I hadn’t seen that I intend to–nor will you find a group of people quite so passionate about the subject as those featured in the film.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched will continue its festival run from here and I’m sure will eventually make its way onto streaming platforms for those who cannot attend the festivals.