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SXSW 2021 Review: “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror” Digs Deep Beneath the Subgenre’s Surface

Monday, March 29, 2021 | Reviews


Directed by Kier-La Janisse
Written by Kier-La Janisse
Severin Films

In WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED, writer/director Kier-La Janisse makes her feature debut with an unprecedented journey into the folk horror genre. Way more than a mere parade of film clips, Janisse and her thoughtfully assembled panel of experts dig deep into the sub-genre’s rich past and recent resurgence. By taking a good, hard look at the threads that tie these films to various times and places, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED becomes a powerful, global inquiry into folk horror’s universal endurance and pervasiveness.

Easing into the subject matter with the genre’s most famous titles, the doc starts off by examining the “Unholy Trinity” of folk horror films; Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Even though these films stand as well-known folk horror pillars, the conversation that unfolds casts a refreshing new light on these familiar touchstones. Combining interviews with filmmakers, academics, historians and genre critics, WOODLANDS cleverly utilizes the Trinity to discuss how politics, cultural values and fears often translate on-screen. By cracking open the door with an accessible and self-contained unit of films, Janisse delicately sets the stage for the exhaustive exploration to come.

Not only does this early segment of the doc outline Janisse’s passionate and academic approach to the subject, it also reveals the artful execution that fuels the underlying narrative and visual engagement. Gorgeous original paper collage animations (by Canadian national treasure, Guy Maddin) and enchanting interludes of traditional songs help set the tone and atmosphere. Working in tandem with Possessor composer Jim Williams’ original score, these factors create an emotional palette that embraces the folk horror aesthetic in style as well as substance.

Segmented into six chapters, WOODLANDS logically works its way through the various strains of folk horror history. By addressing more familiar areas of the genre – British folk horror, Witchcraft and Paganism etc. – up front, WOODLANDS allows the viewer to independently connect the dots from one segment to another. Not only does this weave a fascinating tapestry of the subject as a whole, it entertains while educating. By the time Janisse and her diverse panel of experts reach less commonly discussed areas of the sub-genre, these unique iterations can be independently deciphered and logically placed within the overarching framework. 

Clocking in at a runtime of over 3-hours, it is easy to feel intimidated before stepping into Janisse’s world. However, these self-contained chapters make it easy to digest the experience in segments. A true blessing in disguise, these breaks between segments also provide a convenient moment to hit pause and track down unfamiliar book and Blu-ray titles. WOODLANDS almost constantly divulges new and exciting cinematic and literary recommendations, and it’s guaranteed that most will find dozens of heretofore unheard of titles to check out. Much less of a deep dive into the films themselves than a discussion on their themes, origins, and cultural inspirations, WOODLANDS is dedicated to intelligently challenging and expanding upon the commonly-held, basic notions of what folk horror actually is. 

Captivating and enlightening, Kier-La Janisse’s passionate pedagogic skills are on full display all throughout WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED. By throwing her insightful gaze upon the ritual of cinema, Janisse moderates an eye-opening discussion on where folk horror has been, where it is going and ultimately, what it says about humanity. Peppered with deep cuts and penetrative conversations, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED is a crucial watch for genre fans. But whatever you do, don’t forget to keep a pen and paper handy: your watchlist just got much longer.

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