Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

Written and Directed by Kier-La Janisse

Featuring Samm Deigham, Piers Haggard, Dennis Widmyer, Robert Eggers

Countryside communities whose lands hold dark secrets. Witchcraft and pagan symbols. Cloaked figures committing animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices and more ancient folkloric rituals. 

These are the making of the Folk Horror genre. Horror fans know this type of film very well, as it has existed on screen for almost one hundred years and in literature for centuries. With films such as 2009’s “Wake Wood”, 2018’s “Apostle”, and especially Robert Eggars’ “The Witch” in 2015 and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”, from 2019, folk horror has made a triumphant return to modern cinema. 

Filmmaker Kier-La Janisse has crafted a stunning documentary on the cinematic history (and its origins) of the folk horror genre. Clocking in at three hours and fourteen minutes, “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror” (my choice for the best title of the year!)  is a fascinatingly studied and epic examination of its subject matter. 

Janisse’s film does not slight its subject matter. This is far from just a list of good films within the genre. Through tons of film clips and interview subjects, it examines the etymology of the very term “folk horror” and all the history and myth that comes with it.

The doc begins with a look at what is called the “Unholy Trinity” of folk horror films, “The Witchfinder General”, “Blood on Satan’s Claw”, and “The Wicker Man”.  Truly, these are three of the genre’s best and most influential works. If anyone is looking for an entry point to this genre of film, these are the three to start you on your journey. If you cannot stomach these films, Folk Horror is not for you!

From there the film does a deep dive into folk horror from all over the world, giving insight to the genre’s far-reaching impact. Janisse speaks to scholars, historians, filmmakers, actors and more. This is truly a masterclass on the subject.

Each person speaks eloquently to their opinions and examinations of the genre. Most everyone seems to agree that pure folk horror exists as the lore of cults of people who want to appease the spirits of their ancestors. When outsiders come calling, nothing could ever save them. 

The film focuses on how folk horror has been consistent throughout the years that it allows for many variations to be told in so many different types of horror films. The branches of folk horror can be found to touch films such as 1984’s “Children of the Corn” and 1987’s “The Belivers”. Even M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film “The Village” was ingrained with folk horror atmosphere. As more than one interviewee points out, the genre’s popularity in film always existed since the silent era, but with the success of Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” in 1973, one can find a direct link from that film through just about every horror work infused with a folk horror edge.

The film is divided into different chapters that explore all the facets of folk horror, consequently allowing for a more cohesive structure. The film is breathtaking in its flawless and fluid editing. 

In getting to the core of the origins and elements of folk horror, those who may not be well versed in these types of films should come away with a richer understanding of the genre’s cinematic and literary power. 

Janisse’s direction here can and should be compared to Oliver Stone’s work on his 1991 masterpiece “JFK” in the way she throws so much information at the audience for over three hours but lays it all out so precisely and interestingly. There is not a lull in the film and Janisse leaves no (pagan) stone unturned.

Bookended by artfully designed credit sequences from Guy Maddin, genre fans and film aficionados in general will be fascinated by Kier-La Janisse’s breathtaking film; a love letter to one of the most important subgenres in horror.

“Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror” is an ambitious, well-directed, and brilliantly comprehensive documentary. One of the best I have seen in a very long time. 

NR, 194 Minutes, Severin Films