SXSW 2021: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched

Reviewing a three hour documentary about the legacy of folk horror in film is a daunting proposition. Who is such a thing for? If you are interested enough to watch that big of a film about the subject, probably you are already well-versed enough to have the basics down. If you are not, it’s a no-go anyway. The best one can do is to say how the project has been done and whether or not it all coheres to the central premise. What writer, programmer, and filmmaker Kier-La Janisse wants to do is connect an audience to the history of folk horror through a trifecta of preliminary British masterpieces: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973).

These three create a useful tapestry of themes for the filmmaker. They are great launching points for a lengthy conversation about genre and especially as a means for creating the first major feature film to cover the legacy of folk horror films in any proper depth. We’re able to find the key elements in these three films, a history that reaches back to the foundations of witchcraft, as the film posits that is the one true religion the British brought to the world. And then the film can cleanly extrapolate from that, and explore newer territories. It ably explores how this very British advent of the folk horror film expanded into worldwide trends, with special attention given to all continents and manner of horror. What do Americans have new to say about the history of witchcraft? How do Eastern cultures reflect their cultural identity back into mythological horror? What does Australian horror tell us about our connection to the land?

The film goes for it all. Over a hundred films are finely documented across fifty conversations. The subjects range from academics to writers to filmmakers with vested interests in these stories. When Robert Eggers has anything to say about the history of this subject, we must lean in. There are a few peculiar and colorful characters in there. Ultimately, their words converge to create a broad overview of the form within the first hour. Within that time, we learn about all the hallmarks of the format. Sometimes it feels like we’re being given the syllabus of films to watch, running through them at such a fast clip, that even with such a breadth of coverage, there are many specifics and connective tissues left on the operating table.

That’s what the next two hours are really for. They are a treat to any genre specialist. If anyone has the predilection to explore such a subject, it’s a magnificent addition to the watchlist. Horror marathoners may find an entire schedule to program their horror months with. It’s a fairly substantial document. And, if you’ve shared my experience, and prior readings on these things, probably you know a lot of this. And then, it is still awfully good to tie it all together, and to create throughlines, not just to show the horror you know, but how it exists as a reaction to both a cultural and filmmaking stimulus. That even (and especially) genre pictures exist as a direct reflection of their time; not merely of what society is afraid of, but as an extreme expression at the fringes of what is normally done within that same time.

It’s wonderful time spent, and the more we become steeped in the dark woodlands, ancient mysticism, and practical witchcraft of moviemaking, the more enamoring the film becomes. The presentation of the documentary is lovingly created with dear attention to detail. Beloved Canadian director Guy Maddin (and certainly, closely admired by this critic) creates little paper vignettes to go between the interviews. They are great fun and visually interesting, calling back to the histories of these movies, and the aesthetics this genre has often evoked. Folk horror laureates read some haunting poetry and give the film its own cult-aesthetic mood. These superficial layers also make it an interesting artistic creation unto itself, without ever becoming a fuss of distraction from the text. Probably, it is all too much for anyone casually interested in the material and only a starting point for anyone deeply invested, but it ultimately serves its purpose, as a definitive deep dive, especially for anyone in the middle of these groups, with a deep curiosity and willingness to listen.

The film’s general missive is that “we don’t go back.” That, it suggests, is the central tension of all folk horror texts. And yet, that is all we can do. Go back, and see what is there. Time and time again. It has proven one of our greatest assets in folk horror, going back. That very real tension of man vs nature and man vs tradition. We are tied to both and no matter what good intentions we have, we will always go back. We will always be haunted by our history. And may our horror films always revel in everything that haunts us. Stay haunted.


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