MIFF69 – Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)

The last-minute switch to running this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival entirely online had the unfortunate consequence that many of the films selected were not able to be shown at all, presumably due to a problem with the streaming rights. Thankfully, one of the selections that I’d most looked forward to – Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021) – was made available to stream three days before the festival’s conclusion. Originally conceived as a supplementary feature for a limited edition Blu Ray of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), the project just kept growing and growing, eventually earning its own separate release from Severin Films in the form of the glorious 195 minute documentary we have today.

There’s a lot of material here to get your teeth into, but I’ll do my best to stick to a broad overview. Janisse has broken up her subject matter into six chapters which flow together naturally, with key works coming up in multiple contexts and persistent themes becoming more evident as her narrative develops. Part 1, The Unholy Trinity, begins by defining terms and establishing the key filmic texts. Jonathan Rigby – author of English Gothic (2000, rev. 2015), American Gothic (2007, rev. 2017) and Euro Gothic (2016) – begins by tracking the origin of the term “folk horror” back to English Literature Professor Oscar James Campbell in 1936, before conversation turns to the titular “unholy trinity” of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Referring to that last film, Samm Deighan (associate editor of Diabolique Magazine) makes the interesting observation that is shows the aristocracy reviving ancient traditions as a means of maintaining their hold on power.

In a move which feels thematically appropriate, the attention shifts back in time to examine the influences which laid the groundwork for the flowering of folk horror. The title of the second part – Who Is This Who Is Coming? Signposts of British Folk Horror – is a quote from “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (1904) by M.R. James, whose work has informed adaptations such as Night of the Demon (1957) and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series (1971-75). This section includes discussion of other significant literary antecedents, such as the works of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, before identifying a key figure from the world of television – Nigel Kneale – with particular attention to Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59 and 1967), The Stone Tape (1972), Beasts (1976) and Quatermass (1979). British television from this era provides a particularly rich vein to mine, with Adam Scovell – author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017) – identifying a “Play for Today trilogy” of Robin Redbreast (1970), Penda’s Fen (1974) and Red Shift (1978). Resonating with Deighan’s earlier comment about reviving the past to prop up power structures, one contributor (whose name I forgot to note) suggests that films from the 1980s such as The Company of Wolves (1984) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988) represent a rejection of the Thatcher era’s “heritage film” fetishism.

Part 3 – We Don’t Go Back: Paganism and Witchcraft – draws its title from the lesser known Kneale work Murrain (1975), a quote from a heated discussion between a rationalist veterinarian and superstitious villagers. Looking at the way in which the mid-century revival of paganism and the occult has informed the genre, and referencing an intriguing connection between witchcraft and the women’s suffrage movement in the US, this relatively short section provides a smooth transition into Part 4 – Call Me from the Valley: American Folk Horror. This section is named after a 1954 short story by Manly Wade Wellman, part of his Silver John series which is heavily informed by Appalachian folklore and is represented in film by The Legend of Hillbilly John (1972). The other major authors cited here are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving, with H.P. Lovecraft being referenced mainly for his tales involving backwoods inbreeding and ancient genetic legacies. Most of the films discussed here were new to me, but there was a fascinating and extensive discussion of the false assumptions and cultural generalisations behind the “Indian burial ground” trope so beloved of the horror genre. Jesse Wente, a First Nations Canadian arts journalist with a degree in Cinema Studies, makes the incisive point that colonial states have a deep fear of being colonised themselves.

This theme of displaced civilisations returning from the past to wreak revenge remains a strong theme throughout part 5 – All the Haunts Be Ours: Folk Horror Around the World – which opens up the genre to the world at large, occupying most of the final third of the documentary. Starting off in Australia with local critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas – author of 1000 Women in Horror (2020) – this section winds its way through Poland, Israel, Guatemala, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, France, Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Laos, Estonia, Iceland, Spain, the former Yugoslavia, the Philippines and Thailand. Part 6 – Folk Horror Revival – draws proceedings to a close with a look at some of the more recent entries in the genre, while revisiting the term “folk horror” and what it means today. Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor Press draws Derrida’s concept of hauntology into the mix with the observation that: “Hauntology and folk horror are both forms of cultural nostalgia for a mode of storytelling that doesn’t really exist any more and perhaps never existed at all. Perhaps both of these things are ideas that we, 30 or 40 years later, are projecting onto the past.”

In addition to directing and/or producing documentary features, Kier-La Janisse is the founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and the small-press publisher Spectacular Optical Publications. Her deeply personal book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (2012) explores the ways in which her personal experiences of trauma have informed her taste in films and how those films have in turn helped her process that trauma. She has also co-edited themed anthologies of film writing such as Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017).

Janisse has assembled quite the team of personnel to assist in the creation of this documentary. The name which really stands out is Canadian cinema maverick Guy Maddin – director of Dracula, Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002) and My Winnipeg (2007) (reviewed here) – who created the magical animated paper collage sequences bridging various sections of the film. The other animated sequences are the work of Ashley Thorpe, who made several short horror animations before creating the feature length Borley Rectory (2017), which examines the history of “the most haunted house in England.” Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy, the stars of The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General respectively, contribute readings of various examples of traditional folk poetry. Jim Williams, who provided the original music, has spent most of his career writing soundtracks for movies either in or adjacent to the genre, including a run of four Ben Wheatley films – beginning with the more straightforward crime film Down Terrace (2009) before entering stranger territory in Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and the magnificent A Field in England (2013). And the broad selection of contributors covers a wide range of perspectives, more than justifying the documentary’s length – although I can see ways in which it could be cut down (and at least one contributor has been removed since the original trailer was cut), a shorter edit would lose much of its richness.

In summary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is essential viewing for anybody interested in the subject matter – and for those put off by its length, the inevitable Blu Ray release will make it easier to consume in small doses. As I can no longer find a trailer for the film, I’ve included an interview between Kat Ellinger (editor of Diabolique) and Kier-La Janisse. (Update: Plus a trailer for the upcoming boxset release!)

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