When people discredit the horror genre, I often defend it in terms of how it can explore real world themes and serve them up in allegory form. Some of the best films within the genre represent facets of the world, culture, and time; using fictitious terrors to highlight and exaggerate the message. With a range of subgenres within the collective whole, folk horror is perhaps the most utilized. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror gives us a wonderfully in-depth look at the subgenre, offering a lesson from both a filmmaking perspective, but globally and culturally as well.
The name “folk horror” derives from the folklore tales it pulls inspiration from, with stories rooted in mythologies and witchcraft. There are elements to folk horror that are easily recognizable for audiences. Oftentimes they take place in rural settings—the landscape heightening the story—with themes of religion or local superstitions. The focus is on the characters that are unaware of the power surrounding them.
Looking at films from the 1960s to today, the documentary gives great insight into how these stories explored complex themes through the horror lens. Throughout its 3-hour runtime, director Kier-La Janisse shows how folk horror has evolved over the decades. From the early days, we’re shown how horror fiction translated to the screen by British filmmakers, with films like Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). One thing you’ll certainly take from the film is an immense list of reading and film recommendations to really engross yourself in the genre further.
While exploring the roots, we also dive into how it changes from region to region and respective mythologies, religions, or even sociopolitical times. I was certainly intrigued by the similarities and differences between folk horror from Australia to Japan to Italy, and other regions; learning about their folklore but also how each place represents it within fiction storytelling.
The documentary gives an informative look at American folk horror as well. I was particularly taken by journalist Jesse Wente’s tackling the “Indian burial ground” plot device, seen in Pet Semetary (1989), Poltergeist (1982), and The Shining (1980). It’s been used so often, even in television, that we’ve become desensitized to that trope, but Wente highlights how disrespectful and cavalier it is towards a diverse group of people.
It was certainly interesting to see how folk horror evolved decade by decade, with regards to current events at the time. And with it having its resurgence now, with films like The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019), there’s a continued evolution of its style. Though, a lot of the same techniques and themes seen some 60 years ago are still apparent and effective today.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched covers over 200 films and features interviews with over 50 enthusiasts and experts in the genre, really highlighting the cultural impact of folk horror. Even if you’re not someone who typically leans into this style of film, the doc gives you a new appreciation for its many facets. There is so much to digest that’s presented in the doc, that I do wish it was broken into a series format. I think this would allow viewers more time for reflection, but it’s a great piece nonetheless and a must-see for horror fans.
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