Mike’s Review: Woodlands Dark Days Bewitched A History of Folk Horror (2021) (SXSW Festival)

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

“People in a cult will do horrible things in a cheery way.” Robin Hardy, director of the Wickerman. 

Directed by Kier-La Janisse.

Make no mistake, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is not a generalist survey course and this is not a casual hike in the woods. This is a full on PHD thrill ride in to one of the most mercurial of all horror genres, folk horror. 

Clocking in at a heavy and weighty 193 minutes, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is as deep a dive as you’ll ever find in to the realm of horror.  Existing somewhere just short of a PBS-sponsored Ken Burns fete, a History of Folk Horror goes in to every possible witchy incantation and hare’s den that’s out on that creepy glen. 

At its core, the History of Folk Horror tries to get at the nagging question of the push/pull relationship between modern societal needs and the inherently conflicted association with nature and the “old ways” that may have spawned something more dark and sinister. Ultimately, this question gets down to the very simple idea that we’ve evolved past this superstitious hokum and “…we won’t go back.” While witchcraft, paganism, ghosts, wicca, the spirit world, and other misunderstood phenomenon may sound pleasant and rewarding, they’re anything but. 

Director Kier-La Janisse does a wonderful job of setting the stage with a THOROUGH discussion of the epicenter of folk horror, British folk horror.  As multiple interviewees intimate in the film, witchcraft is really the only true religion has given to the world. So, it’s through this lens that History of Folk Horror looks at the (un)holy trinity — Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and the Wicker Man. While the History of Folk horror perseverates over literally hundred of other films, TV shows, and arcane bits of witchy literature, it’s these three that really get at the essence of the connection to the land, old and forgotten pieces of pre-historical rites and rituals, and the religious repression that hits on the tried and true trope of sexual repression. 

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Blood on Satan’s Claw never gets old.

Certainly, many films came before these three, and in fact, as History of Folk Horror discusses, the very FIRST mention of “folk horror” was uttered by Oscar James Campbell in a literary discussion of superstition in gothic literature. This construct calibrates to the industrial age and the very conscious decision to shelve the rural traditions and move in to the new age of enlightenment with little need for grief, contemplation, and sorrow. 

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror covers everything. Really. Everything.

There’s segments on witchcraft, American gothic horror, H.P. Lovecraft, native/indigenous peoples, Asian traditions, and Scandinavian ceremonies. There’s even a fascinating dissection of Brazilian religions, African traditions carried to Brazil, and the impact of German immigrants in Brazil and their peculiar cultural leanings and superstitious connection to the natural environment. 

Answering the question “What if the old ways were right?” is not an easy task. It’s only made more difficult by the obsessive nature to climb in the every rabbit hole and crevice in the hollow by the creek. As I pondered this rather ponderous fare, it struck me that folk horror is a truly massive catch-all within the horror genre. Slashers and UFOs might very well be the only unique spooks that aren’t swallowed up be these universal pagan rites. 

No matter your thoughts on the most heady horror sub-genre, this film will have you rethinking your connection to horror movies, literature, the environment, and even rudimentary and assumed concepts like family traditions. Take a deep breath, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is a weighty tome, but this pagan party will pay off for even the most hardened horror patron. 

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is not rated. It had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest Festival.

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