To an extent, you can classify horror by what is killing you: A brick shithouse murderer? You’re in a slasher. A horrid monster with big pointy teeth? You’re in a creature feature. (The tumorous conjoined twin peeking out of the back of some lady’s skull who hijacks the lady’s body and also can mess with electronics? Uh… I’ll get back to you.) Another way to look at it is where you are, and the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched argues that the folk horror genre is much more about the nature of a place than about its manifested perils, be they a mob of pagan cultists, a coven of witches, or freaking Candyman.
This subcategory of horror is broad enough that it can draw in cult conspiracy films like The Wicker Man and those of Ari Aster even as it includes things like the numerous movies old and new about La Llorona and oddities like Psychomania, which is about a gang of undead café racer hooligans doing things like purposely committing suicide for funsies and riding their motorcycles through grocery stores to the horror of Londonites. It is less a genre, argues one talking head, than a mode of storytelling.
Across a runtime of more than three hours, Woodlands Dark dives into that form of storytelling, starting with the late-’60s/early-’70s movement in British cinema before heading west to America and then expanding its scope to draw in examples from all over the world to elucidate just what it is about, say, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s The Medium that feels so similar to something like Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
The documentary makes its most thorough study of British folk horror, starting with the sort of unofficial trilogy of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and the endlessly referenced The Wicker Man. Director Kier-La Janisse’s film draws in the writers and directors of the movies, and scholars of horror from both sides of the Atlantic, to unpack the themes that link them: Authority and its subversion (and sometimes literal emasculation), anxieties about female agency and empowerment, and a fear of a land or a place’s lingering spirits and how they haunt the order that has risen over their ashes.
“‘We don’t go back’ is the fundamental tension of folk horror,” says author Howard David Ingham, referencing the title of one of his own works and a line in one film in which a desperate investigator finds himself caught between a woman in modern times suspected of being a witch and the superstitious mob looking to do violence against her. It’s one of several major theses of the documentary as it tries to draw a line between a cinematic landscape that gave rise to Christopher Lee’s grinning cult leader Lord Summerisle and the one that gave rise to the drug-and-group-crying cult of Midsommar. (For starters, the film’s interviewees recall 1970s Britain as a place where a conservative government botched an election and had a contentious referendum on its relationship with Europe at the same time an American president was mired in scandal.)
Janisse’s subjects also do an able job of linking those themes to America, starting with New England horror and how its particularly colonial anxieties map onto the folk horror tradition. “There’s no such thing as an Indian burial ground. There’s Mohawk burial grounds. There’s Cree burial grounds,” says Jesse Wente, a First Nations Canadian journalist, speaking as the documentary takes a detour through the long-used trope of homes being built over “Indian burial grounds,” something that’s used in The Amityville Horror and The Shining. (What could be more terrifying for a colonial state, for a house built over another culture’s stolen land, than to be invaded, after all?)
That dive gets a good bit less deep and a great deal more broad in its final hour, as the documentary takes a world tour of folk horror, dipping into examples from Australia, Japan, Italy, the Czech Republic, Brazil and many parts between. When a documentary runs for 194 minutes, that can make short looks into a film here or there seem like they should’ve been trimmed in service of a clearer focus. But Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’s strength is that it finds the common ground between the witches of Puritan New England and those of Eastern Europe, or the eerie resonance that La Llorona has with Kuroneko.
For lovers of horror who want to know why there’s been a revival of folk horror—why we’ve seen more movies like The Ritual or Nia DaCosta’s new Candyman—the question is whether Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched succeeds at doing more than just providing a taxonomy of its subject. It’s a credit to the documentary that it gave me a fresh set of eyes on a film like The Wicker Man and managed to find more than just the superficial similarities it has with Midsommar.
In The Wicker Man, we spend the entirety of the film from the perspective of Edward Woodward’s police officer as he investigates the disappearance of a woman in an insular community run by Christopher Lee’s gleeful cultists. They openly flout Christianity and British society, debauch and harass Woodward, and stymie his investigation at every turn. It all ends with Woodward as a blood sacrifice, choking on prayers that are falling on deaf ears. The thing is, and it’s only become clearer on subsequent viewings, that you are not supposed to be rooting for him. He is a humorless prick who represents brutal authoritarianism, and as much as the movie is about the fear of a return to wild paganism, it is also about his utter inflexibility and self-righteousness. As much as Midsommar is about fear of a cult brainwashing Florence Pugh in a moment of overwhelmed weakness, it’s also about how her ill-fated boyfriend and traveling companions have left her with absolutely zero room or respect to grieve her dead family.
We’re in a time right now where some parts of our country are speaking the names of Indigenous people whose lands were stolen and others are angrily demanding that any mention of our nation’s history as slaveholders be stricken from the curriculum, even now building a fresh pile of bones that the next generation is going to be encouraged to ignore. Everybody is angry and scared and we can’t even agree on why. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a documentary about the genre that is in tune with that dissonance, as much now as it was 50 years ago.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.