A man from the city finds himself stranded in a quaint village, where they kill him in a ritual sacrifice. There, that’s folk horror for you. Nature can also be a nasty, vicious beast in such films. Stone circles and pagan cults are celebrated in Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a three and a half horror documentary survey of folk horror, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Janisse starts with the folk horror fans know and love best, the so-called unholy trinity of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (mercifully, the Nic Cage remake is scrupulously ignored). The film then flashes back to the sub-genre’s literary roots in stories like Grant Harrow’s Pallinghurst Barrow and the ghost stories of M.R. James.
It turns out the BBC was a fount of classic folk horror in the 1970’s. The James adaptations of the A Ghost Story for Christmas franchise are still well regarded and the creepy kids drama The Children of the Stone maintains a nostalgic cult following. The second half of Janisse’s exhaustive study loses some of its focus and energy, but there is still some interesting coverage of international folk horror. It is particularly nice to see Mattie Do and clips of her film Dearest Sister.
Unfortunately, a good deal of the critical commentary is predictable and repetitive. Honestly, if you took a shot for every time some uses a form of the word “colonialism,” you would be lucky to wind up in the hospital rather than the morgue. The same is true for the word “patriarchy,” so clearly Janisse did not cast a very wide net for diverse viewpoints. Frankly, Woodlands is a good example of how the insular world of hipster film criticism is starting to sound like a brainwashed pagan cult.
That’s Entertainment Treatment. Notable films under discussion include Eggers The Witch and of course Aster’s Midsommar, but interesting works like Wheatley’s Kill List and Thompson’s Eye of the Devil are only seen in passing. It can’t match the delirious fun of Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood, but it is generally up to the level of David A. Weiner’s In Search of Darkness and just a cut below Oliver Harper’s In Search of Last Action Heroes.
As a bonus, the great Guy Maddin adds some atmospheric texture with his introductory and concluding collage sequences. There are plenty of intriguing excerpts that will definitely have viewers adding films to their watch lists, but it easily could have been edited down to something under three hours and the addition of a few contrary viewpoints definitely would have made things more interesting. Recommended for folk horror fans, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched screens as an on-demand selection of this year’s Fantasia.