Folk horror is something that, for a while, I didn’t know was genuinely one of my favorite forms in the horror genre. It’s difficult to categorize it as its own separate sub-genre as its products can be widespread and incredibly varied, but in essence, it combines the components of a horror film with the often bleak and violent folklore of many of a culture’s vast history and storytelling practices. When one thinks of folk horror, their minds jump directly to The Wicker Man or Midsommar as prime examples, and while they do fall under folk horror, the essence of folk horror is not confined exclusively to one culture or continent. Kier-La Janisse’s epic documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (which I will refer to simply as Woodlands Dark going forward), attempts to effectively consolidate nearly a year of folk horror films from across the world into a single feature documentary. It’s a tall task, but one that was quite successful in its execution.
The structure of Woodlands Dark is particularly helpful for those uninitiated in folk horror as it starts with the films that one’s mind immediately goes to when they think of folk horror. Brightly lit, ethereal, European horror with ancient Pagan rituals befalling an outsider entering a secluded community of strange goings-on. From Witchfinder General to Blood on Satan’s Claw (but strangely not the Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man), Janisse sets the stage for the exact type of documentary we expected to get from a film covering folk horror.
And then things shift, and Janisse literally allows the world to open up on screen.
This shift about one-third through the film’s admittedly daunting 195-minute runtime (it flies by, and I don’t admit that lightly) begins to dig into other cultures’ definitions of folk horror, starting with how America has ridden off of Europe’s initially influential stories of folk legend as a conduit for horror, but has let it often get corrupted by harmful tropes such as the “Indian Burial Ground” (The Shining; Pet Sematary) or “Voodoo Priestess” (The Serpent and the Rainbow), which in turn segues to absolutely fascinating dives into the state of indigenous horror and Black American horror as more voices from those specific cultures get to tell their stories in an authentic and unsensational way.
The segments focused on Australian folk horror were very interesting. Australian folk horror, while suffering from many of the issues that both British and American horror face, particularly in its early usage of indigenous depiction as a wholly evil people, seemed to hit an evolution to where even white Australian filmmakers began to craft more sympathetic and self-critical looks at Australia’s horrifying history of violent colonialism against Aboriginal populations. But even in the more modern takes on horror with seemingly straightforward films like Wolf Creek or Lake Mungo, the attachment to the land and stain of British colonialism still implicitly remains. This entire segment was absolutely fascinating.
I would be lying if I said the final hour of Woodlands Dark didn’t drag just a little bit, as the focus begins to get more and more specific. With fewer deep dives into specific cultures and more broad looks at a few films that fall under that distinction, it becomes a smidge less engrossing. It does help that Woodlands Dark has crafted an absolute A-team of horror historians and filmmakers for the riveting interview segments of the film. It’s always obvious when an interviewee in a documentary is passionate about discussing their subject, and when they are just going through the motions. Even as the film’s pace does slow down a bit, there is not a single interviewee who is not just as passionate and knowledgeable as the last one. Janisse has gathered an absolutely stellar cast of experts here.
Would Woodlands Dark perhaps work better as a four-part mini-series, perhaps; its chapter divisions and topic shifts could easily break things up into more digestible chunks and give some of the smaller sections of focus a bit more room to breathe. That doesn’t mean that what is here isn’t a riveting dive into the broad spectrum that folk horror has to offer. Even watching the film, I found myself thinking of other films that technically could fall under folk horror and doing my own deep dives after the credits had rolled. At the end of the day, a documentary is only as good as its subject is engaging, and I found myself wanting even more than the insane amount than what’s already on display here.
I’m sure no one is surprised by that, though.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.