Fantasia Fest 2021: Woodlands Dark is a lush, comprehensive deep dive into folk horror

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched - Courtesy of Fantasia Festival 2021
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched - Courtesy of Fantasia Festival 2021 /

My official introduction to the term “folk horror” came about during the height of Midsommar‘s popularity a couple of years ago. But I had always been fascinated by the idea of dark forests harboring old gods, pagan rituals, sacrifices to an ancient being, ambivalence toward progress, and long-brewing fears masked by an evolving society that has never reckoned with its bloody origins. Little did I know that all of these things felt into the specific sub-genre of folk horror, a niche that Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched explores in encyclopedic detail. This extensive and prolific labor of love stretches across an epic three-hour runtime.

Film writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse directs this ode to folk horror and does so with an incredible eye for the uncanny, which is fitting given the way the documentary describes folk horror as the “juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny.” Janisse has a long and impressive background in defining horror via scholarly text and research.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched has a behemoth task before it to explore the origins of folk horror from its early beginnings, through the 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), and following it into British culture, mainstream America, Africa, Asia, and beyond. Folk horror has its roots in just about every culture across the globe, even if it manifests in unique ways depending on that country’s history and what is still to be reckoned with.

America is steeped in the bloody and horrifying colonial era. Colonialism and its impact on the genre and how Native Americans have been depicted in horror with “Indian burial grounds” often at the height of this disturbing trend.

Folk horror often examines how modern society superimposes past traumas without ever reckoning with them, leaving carnage and racism as a bedrock for progress that emerges catalyzed by old ghosts, hence why so many of these stories deal with ancient evils and dormant gods just waiting to rise once more. They’re always there, lurking just beneath the surface, “wisdoms that have been long repressed and forgotten, and rise up again.”

woodlands dark
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched – Courtesy of Fantasia Festival 2021 /

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a fittingly bewitching crash course in folk horror that leaves no stone unturned.

Then there are the topics of insular communities, our fear of cults and their popularity, and religion. I did want the documentary to spend more time on witches, as I felt that section was surprisingly short, but Robert Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, is part of the documentary and gets his chance to insert some fascinating commentary on the direction of his film alongside the many other scholarly talking heads chosen to discuss folk horror throughout Woodlands Darks and Days Bewitched.

In short, if you’ve ever wanted to know anything about folk horror, this is the documentary for you. It functions like a collegiate course, stuffed with fascinating intel and references to more than 200 films for you to research or add to your watchlist. If it hasn’t already, I can see this becoming part of scholarly discourse and teachings in the future, with the neat sections making it easy to divide up for specific conversations and analysis.

For those who aren’t diehard cinephiles or horror enthusiasts, the film might be best broken down into pieces, which isn’t hard to do, given that each specific topic comes with a header and theme. But even then, this documentary is a beautiful, lush, captivating, and sprawling saga of one of the genre’s most surreal and arcane facets worthy of anyone’s time and dedication. We’ve all sat down and binged a ten-hour season of television before; surely you can power through a three-hour documentary!

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