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Review: Chattanooga Film Festival: Kier-La Janisse’s ‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror’ is Thoughtful and Perceptive

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Review: Chattanooga Film Festival: Kier-La Janisse's 'Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror' Is Thoughtful and Perceptive

WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR, directed by Kier-La Janisse, is an absorbing deep dive into folk horror and its origins. The documentary streamed at The Chattanooga Film Festival, which was (thankfully) virtual again this year. The festival plans to return as a live event in 2022 though a virtual option will be available as well.

The documentary features interviews with lots of creative and thoughtful people, including Alice Lowe (PREVENGE); Maisha Wester (GOTHIC AND THE POLITCS OF RACE); Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (1000 WOMEN IN HORROR); Piers Haggard (THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW); and Kevin Kölsch, director of 2019’s PET SEMATARY.

Folk horror is defined loosely as a subgenre that uses folklore to scare an audience. The term was coined by director Piers Haggard in a 2003 interview with Fangoria when discussing his 1971 film THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, a film about a village and demon possession. Haggard said that he was trying to do something different than your typical Hammer horror film, which was the popular style for horror in England at the time. 

Folk horror has always been around, but it wasn’t defined as folk horror in the eighties, nighties, early aughts, or even earlier. Some films that you might subtype as a zombie or a witch film could also be considered folk horror. Wes Craven’s THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is a zombie film, but it’s also folk horror because it’s based on stories about zombies that’s rooted in folklore. The film was loosely based on the non-fiction book by Wade Davis, who researched the history of a real person who was turned into a zombie in Haiti. Davis was a botanist and anthropologist interested in learning about the herbs and rituals used to transform a human being into ‘the walking dead’. 

Folk horror can be about witches, demons, zombies, or the unknown supernatural if based on folklore, or if the fear is nature-based—though by that definition—it feels as if everything could be defined as folk horror, but I suppose you know folk horror when you see it. Yes, folk horror has a vibe. If you’ve seen THE WICKERMAN (and everyone has seen THE WICKERMAN), you know this to be true.

The holy unholy trinity of folk horror is considered to be three British films, according to writer Mark Gatiss: The 1968 WITCHFINDER GENERAL, directed by Micheal Reeves; 1971’s THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, directed by Piers Haggards; and of course, THE WICKER MAN, directed by Robin Hardy in 1971, though it’s interesting that many of the holy trinity could also be defined as a film about a cult, or a community gone berserk, haywire, or corrupt.

There’s something earthy about folklore too, which may explain why Celtic folk horror seemed to come of age in the late sixties and early seventies. In those days, many white Baby Boomers (though not all) were performatively pro-social, and into the trendiness of ‘mother nature’ and hippie-type-hobbit stuff before moving on to consumerism, designer jeans, and aerobicizing in the eighties, when (unsurprisingly) slashers reigned. 

Folk horror has experienced a resurgence in the past few years, perhaps starting with Robert Eggers’s THE WITCH in 2016 and Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR in 2019. But it’s always existed, and the documentary traces its origins back to fairy tales, songs, poems, and folk stories from different cultures around the world.

WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR also focuses on Indigenous and Black horror films, and how themes and premises in those films are derived from folklore. The films CANDYMAN, HEX, LAKE MUNGOGANJA & HESS, and EVE’S BAYOU, directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also starred in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, are examples of how many horror movies are formed (even unknowingly) by the history of colonialism, slavery, and violence.

The documentary also discusses new folk horror films, such as the Guatemalan film LA LLORNA, directed by Jayro Bustamante, which was about the genocide of the Mayan people in the early eighties. The 2019 film was based on the folk legends of la Llorna, a wailing ghost or crying woman who haunts areas with water, crying for her drowned children. 

WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR is a wonderfully thoughtful and perceptive documentary. I loved it. It’s one of the documentaries I will turn on again and again (after watching it the first time) so that it soaks into my unconscious mind. I rewatch films that I love constantly. There’s a definite subset of horror fans who are super interested in the history of horror. Perhaps horror as a genre has been overlooked, so horror documentaries are in demand now to rectify that. 

After watching WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR, I added the following books to my Good Reads list, including one by the director of the documentary:

HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN by Kier-La Janisse

AFRICAN AMERICAN GOTHIC: SCREAMS FROM SHADOWED PLACES by Maisha Wester

1000 WOMEN IN HORROR by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

-GRIMM’S COMPLETE FAIRY TALES by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm 

For those interested, there’s also a list on Letterbox with every film mentioned in WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORRORFilms mentioned in “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror” by Jon Ursenbach.

If you love films, be sure to check out: WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR; it’s a real treat for cinephiles and horror fans alike. 

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