Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)

A Documentary Film

Tonight was a documentary sort of night, and this gem from Shudder caught my eye due to my love of folk horror films. It’s often one of those unsung genres that most horror aficionados ignore, largely because it usually lacks the big body counts of your run-of-the-mill slasher flick. I’ve often heard folks get mad at films like Midsommar saying “but it wasn’t scary!” missing the entire point of the film and refusing to think otherwise. Humanities ongoing battle between tradition and modernity sit at the heart of folk horror films, and as one talking head says “we don’t go back” referring to that very tradition as something we should probably distance ourselves from.

“WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED explores the folk horror phenomenon from its beginnings in a trilogy of films – Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s and its culturally specific manifestations in American, Asian, Australian and European horror, to the genre’s revival over the last decade. Touching on over 200 films and featuring over 50 interviewees, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED investigates the many ways that we alternately celebrate, conceal and manipulate our own histories in an attempt to find spiritual resonance in our surroundings.”

The list of films discussed in this documentary is rather exhaustive, and features all of the ones you’d expect like The Wicker Man (the good one), Blood on Satan’s Claw, and the aforementioned Midsommar. While the film is not an encyclopedic list of every folk horror film, nor does it attempt to be anything of the sort, it goes through a lot of the themes and socio-political waves that may have caused such films to have been made. Just like how with science fiction writer’s often make content that can be seen as a political statement, folk horror is perhaps one of the more expressive forms of the entire horror genre.

For example, a lot of the 1960’s and 1970’s British folk horror dealt with the unsettling aspects of the countryside. The UK was having a sort of renaissance when it came to people’s desire to reconnect with nature, and counter-culture groups were often trying their best to head back into places that their ancestors had left for industrialism decades before. Suddenly, a wave of films about rural terrors started cropping up. Such topics included: how untouched religious sects in small villages were not to be trusted, how evil witches might be controlling small villages, how evil Neolithic stones could be controlling people, and even how the land itself can be terrifying. While the concept existed before, the popularized notion of “folk horror” was born.

Director Kier-La Janisse, in one of her few directorial outings has put together quite the film with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. I went into this assuming that it would basically just be about either the UK scene or possibly modern film, but she really hit this one out of the park. Not only does she cover those topics, but the film also goes over differences in American folk horror, international folk horror, modern revivals, and what even constitutes the genre itself considering how differently a film from two countries can be.

For example, In Japan the folk horror is not usually “the folk” themselves, but old folkloric monsters. In America, it’s usually based on “weird” Christian sects ala Children of the Corn, The UK has it out for Paganism, and a place like Northern Europe usually has nature itself as the chief antagonist. While all VERY different, these are all different puzzle pieces that make up the genre, and Janisse does a fine job of weaving it all into a cohesive narrative.

I was happy to see some of my favorite films and TV series get a nod, such as a couple of Doctor Who episodes, Nigel Kneale productions like The Stone Tape and Quatermass, as well as recent films like The VVitch and The Ritual. It has somewhat inspired me to perhaps watch some of this stuff at some point for review material. More than anything, the film made me realize that folk horror is probably my favorite genre of horror film and gave me a hell of a list of older films to try to watch. Since this was on Shudder (through AMC+ for me), I noticed a number of the older films are already on AMC+, so be prepared for me to be on a horror kick at some point!

The film is pretty long, so if you are in a time crunch be aware that you will need more than three hours to watch this. It also meanders just a tad, as some of the interviewees start trickling in things like folky vampire stories and the like, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as “folk horror” isn’t a genre in of itself really, and just like with musical genres, saying what constitutes one is a slippery slope into pretention of the highest order.

This is probably the best documentary I’ve seen in a while and makes me want to scour Shudder for other similar films as I was quite impressed. Usually, I’m not usually “Into horror”, meaning I don’t like “jump scare films” and am tired of slasher movies, which constitutes like 99% of the horror films I see trailers for. This got me to realize that there is still horror being released that does interest me, and I should go out and try to watch more of it. Overall, if you enjoy film and want to see a solid documentary this weekend, do yourself a favor and watch Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.


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