One of the standout films for this year’s SXSW festival for me was director Kier-La Janisse’s expansive folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. (Check out my review of the film here.) The three-plus hour film provides a deep dive into folk horror, and fans of the genre will undoubtedly come away with a number of new titles added to their watch list. When I had the opportunity to discuss all things folk horror with the multi-talented director, I jumped at the chance. Check out our conversation below…
To set the stage a bit, how did you first get exposed to folk horror? What was it that first captured your imagination?
Folk horror is a term that has been popularized really in the last decade, and it’s been retroactively applied to a lot of older films that we now call folk horror films. They would not have been called folk horror at the time. So it’s not as though as a kid or a teenage film fan I was looking for folk horror, or even knew what to look for. There were definitely films, and television films, I would have seen, like Crowhaven Farm, or The Dark Secret of Harvest Home. I would have seen Children of the Corn—I saw that in the theatre when it came out. I remember when I was a teenager, The Wicker Man was a big deal. It was still going around in bootlegs. You couldn’t get the proper full cut without getting a bootleg that had been cobbled together from different sources. But I do remember that being a big deal among a number of genre film fans—not that I knew that many genre film fans as a teenager. That would come later. But it was a big deal in the horror magazines that I would read. I remember there was a store in Winnipeg, where I was living at the time, that had it. They carried a fair amount of bootlegs, and I think one of the reasons for that possibly was that one of the video store clerks there was Caelum Vatnsdal, who went on to write the book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema. In Canada, he’s one of the other main people who writes about genre films. We were both teenagers at the time. He was working at this video store, and I’m almost positive that he had a big hand in how many bootlegs were available in the store. That’s how I first saw The Wicker Man, and it became a big movie for me pretty much right away. I totally thought it was real. (laughs) I totally thought that island was a real place, that the film was fictional but that it had been based on the culture of this real island. That was one of the fun things before the internet became so prevalent—it really was much easier to believe that all these things were real.
So I became interested in The Wicker Man to the extent that when I first started writing about horror and doing film festivals, one of the first things that I did was that I went to Scotland. I went all the way up to the Scottish Highlands by myself to find the town where they had filmed the harbor scenes. They filmed a few scenes in that town, but the harbor scene when he first arrives—that’s all still there. It all looks exactly the same. It has palm trees and everything, because of the Gulf Stream. It really does have palm trees; that wasn’t just done for the movie. The harbor master’s boat, which is in the film, is this little red and blue rowboat with these eyes painted on the front of it. I had heard that the boat was still intact and still there in the village. I went and found it! It was in a woodshed with all these other rowboats. I travelled all the way there, and I went and I sat in this rowboat, ate my sandwich or whatever I’d come with, and walked around the town for a bit, then went back. It was kind of a weird pilgrimage, but that was kind of the beginning of my being very interested in this topic.
Then around 2012, I started noticing the term “folk horror” being used a lot, especially in British publications and by British writers. This was the period of films like Kill List and A Field in England. That doesn’t mean there weren’t folk horror films before this or anything like that. But I feel like that period between Kill List and A Field in England was when we started to see a proliferation of folk horror, and of the term being used a lot to describe these kinds of films. I was still actively writing for genre film magazines at that time. I remember writing about folk horror films, and using the term “folk horror,” and assigning writing to other people. I remember assigning a guy named Owen Williams to do a piece on British folk horror that at the time was considered to be a very in-depth piece. All of the British stuff that we look at now and think, “Oh yeah, everybody knows that.” I remember at the time that this article came out, he mentioned Robin Redbreast and Penda’s Fen. A lot of non-British people didn’t have any clue what those things were. So that article was important at that time. So around the turn of the last decade, it became something that I was very aware of—that this was something that was brewing, and it wasn’t just brewing in film. It was brewing in music, and in visual arts, and just a general interest in that intersection between horror and folklore. If you look at the Folk Horror Revival Facebook group, it’s nonstop and it’s not just movies. It’s people’s photography, people’s arts and crafts. It’s all got a dark tinge to it, which is the thing that brings the word “horror” into it. But it’s very much about folk traditions and folk cultures and practices.
I remember the first time that I saw The Wicker Man, it didn’t really click for me. My formative horror experiences were mostly being exposed to George Romero’s films at a very young age, arguably too young. When I first saw The Wicker Man, it just didn’t click. I don’t think it was until the late 90s or early 2000s when Anchor Bay put out a wooden box set with the extended cut on DVD that I sat down and watched it with a different perspective. That time, so many things started to fall into place—especially when you realize at the end what has been going on this whole time. You keyed in exactly to where I started paying a little more attention to folk horror as a movement. I had seen Kill List, I believe, on a cable channel like IFC or Sundance. So I was familiar with Ben Wheatley when A Field in England came out. Living in Austin, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to see it a couple of times on the big screen. And that experience was what really started me digging in a little deeper. You mentioned music as well, and that brings something up I was going to ask you about… Are you familiar with the band Blood Ceremony?
I don’t know.
They are a Canadian band, very 70s-influenced psych rock, very horror movie influenced as well. They have a song called “Lord Summerisle” that’s obviously influenced by The Wicker Man. So that might be worth checking out if you’re interested. I think it’s fascinating to see how culture influences folk horror (or really horror in general), which then in turn influences culture. Before we chase that rabbit any farther, can you tell us about your history with Severin Films and how you brought this idea to them initially?
I started working for Severin around December of 2017. I came on just as an editor of bonus features. I was kind of at the bottom rung. I was the newest person, and my editing experience was somewhat basic. I used to edit things for the Alamo Drafthouse when I worked there. I would edit together compilation shows that we’d play for Music Mondays and stuff like that. My editing skill had never really progressed beyond that, but it was enough to bring me on as an extra person to edit bonus features. That was how I first started working with Severin. I knew David Gregory just from writing about film. I think we first met when I was interviewing him about one of his films, and we became friends that way. So he hired me to do bonus features, and it was around May of 2018, just about six months after I’d come on… I was visiting LA and having drinks with David and Howard Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and David was spilling the beans to them about how we would be releasing this reissue of Blood on Satan’s Claw. It was going to be a limited release, and it hadn’t been announced yet. It was still a secret. There had just been some new extras created for a UK release of the film. What often happens is that DVD companies will sometimes trade extras, and then they’ll also make their own special ones that are unique to their release. There were all these new extras being created, and David was thinking we might not have much to add to that. Everyone had just been interviewed. So I suggested that he do something that was just a general overview of folk horror, like a half-hour survey of some of the key films. It was really positioned as not much. I just proposed this 30-minute thing, and I wasn’t proposing it for myself, since I was just working as an editor. I had just proposed it as an idea for someone at Severin to do. David liked the idea and said, “Okay, go do it. Hand it in by August.” I said, “Go do it? What do you mean? I don’t make movies.” David said, “You know all the people you should ask. You would know better than I would who you should talk to. You should just do it.”
So it ended up being a trial by fire. I just got thrown into the deep end. It was my first job for Severin producing, and now I do more producing than editing. But my very first producing task was that I had to pick who the interviewees were going to be, find them, get camera people where they live, arrange the interviews, arrange for everybody to be paid, give the technical specs of how I wanted the interviews to be shot. It started off rather small, since it was just going to be an extra for Blood on Satan’s Claw. It was just going to be half an hour, and it was only going to focus on British folk horror. It was going to be the most basic stuff. I do tend to interview experts. There are lots of horror critics and journalists and historians I know who are not in the movie because that’s not their specialty. They haven’t written books about that topic or they don’t have documented expertise on the topic. I had gone to all these brilliant people to give their insights on folk horror, and they brought up all these interesting ideas that were not part of my original plans. It made me really think about expanding the piece and expanding what kinds of things I would be talking about. Eventually that meant expanding the territory, the boundaries, the parameters of what the original concept was. It was no longer just about British folk horror. It was looking at folk horror from alternate perspectives from that very strong identity that British folk horror has. Every time I interviewed people it got bigger. Every time I thought, “I’ll interview this one more person, and I’ll get them to be the glue and say all the final things I need someone to say.” But inevitably they would bring up something that I felt I really needed to explore further. And it would involve me interviewing another person who could riff on the points that had just been brought up. It just kept going, because the people I interviewed were so amazing. Luckily, David Gregory just enabled me to keep going. He was just like, “Go for it. Just keep going!” I was always amazed through the whole process, because it’s been two and a half, almost three years now since that original pitch—and David has never bugged me once about the deadline. It really was submitting the film to SXSW that I used as a deadline for myself. We didn’t actually expect to get in. We were just using their submission deadline as our deadline. Even then, we weren’t done in time so we submitted a rough cut to SXSW. When we actually got accepted, we were like, “Oh shit! Now we have to finish the movie in time!” (laughs) So we were still finishing the movie until like late February. I think February 22nd is when we handed it in.
I remember hearing on a February episode of the Severin Films Podcast that you were still working on the final edit at that point!
Yes, it was very down to the wire.
Obviously over the last year, we’ve done a lot more from home and have done a lot of communication over FaceTime or Zoom instead of in person. Several times over the last year in one of the online communities I’m a part of, this conversation has come up. People are asking what folk horror is, what constitutes folk horror, and so on. I had a lot of these questions running around in my head regularly. To see them being addressed, almost exactly in the way they came up in these conversations, was really exciting. I found myself looking forward to telling people about the documentary, and for other people to get the chance to see it. A lot of the topics discussed, a lot of the movies brought up, and a lot of the people interviewed bring up topics that were part of these ongoing discussions. I realized in my own discussions and my own initial reactions that I tended toward a very rigid and Euro-centric view of folk horror. When you have the interview with Adam Scovell, who discusses not looking at folk horror as a genre but rather as a mode like in music, that really opened things up for me and made me reconsider some films, like Candyman, that I had dismissed out of hand when others would suggest them as examples of folk horror.
Adam Scovell is one of the key scholars in folk horror, and he makes an important distinction here. I still use the word “genre” or “subgenre” simply because it’s a lazy shorthand to use. People know exactly what you’re talking about. But I do think he’s right in the sense that so many of these things just don’t connect in a typical way. There are all these movies that many people just would not see as being part of the same conversation. For example, look at Penda’s Fen. In the context of British folk horror, it has a number of elements that totally fit. It doesn’t have any creepy village with a summoning. It’s dealing with ancestral horrors in a different way. For British folk horror fans, it’s easy to see how something like Penda’s Fen fits. But David Rudkin, who wrote Penda’s Fen, does not see it as folk horror. He didn’t want to be interviewed for the film, and he’s got two films that are mentioned in the documentary. He didn’t see his work as folk horror, and didn’t really understand what this was. There are a lot of things where people don’t even consider their work to be horror, let alone folk horror. Tracey Moffatt, the Australian director who did Bedevil, I don’t know that she considers Bedevil a horror film or if she wants to be in the horror film discussions. She’s actually a hugely famous artist in Australia, and is more known for visual arts, photography, and installations. Bedevil is one of the few films that she made. As William Fowler says in the movie, a term like folk horror allows all these things to connect, and allows them all to have a relationship with each other that people didn’t see before. So it is useful to have these terms, even though as soon as you have these terms and apply them to movies, it immediately invites questions about what the categorizations of that term are. What are the parameters of that term? What fits, and what doesn’t fit? These terms are, if anything, just evocative associations. You say, “folk horror,” and people get a sense of what you mean. They may not be able to describe exactly what it is. Even when people try to do so, there are inevitably questions about other works that may not fit a rigid definition. I think especially with folk horror, it’s like Adam Scovell said—more of a mode. It falls apart if you try to be too strict with it.
Thinking about it that way, it becomes more inclusive. I know when someone first posited to me that Candyman was a folk horror film, I dismissed it out of hand. But when you really start to think about it, it does have a number of these elements—just not in the way we may be accustomed to thinking about them.
I still think Candyman is one of the more controversial things that we included, because it takes place in a city, in a highrise block. For many people the most basic definition of folk horror includes that it needs to take place in a rural environment.
I started thinking about it, because that was part of my initial response as well. But does it have to be rural, or is it more about a place separated from what we think of as a more modern society? If we look at it as separation from mainstream society, Candyman fits that mold. There is a connection to the land, and the people, and the memory inherent there. I thought it was really interesting to see Candyman come up in the documentary, given some of the recent discussions I had been a part of.
Candyman did get brought up by a lot of the interviewees. The only reason why it’s my voice talking about Candyman is that a lot of people who brought it up would just say, “Candyman.” They would say it among a list of other films they considered to be folk horror, but didn’t necessarily elaborate. Perhaps it was earlier on in my questioning period of doing the interviews, where I got much more specific about getting people to elaborate about things as the process went on. My questions at the beginning were much more broad, and so we didn’t always extrapolate on some of the ideas. But it was a film that got brought up by a lot of people I spoke to, and that’s what I was trying to do with the movie—really show a representation of . There are a few films in the documentary that no one else brought up, but that I just included because I felt it was folk horror. For the most part, these are all films that the interviewees brought up. In many cases, multiple interviewees would bring up a given film. Candyman was a film that did keep coming up. Also, because of the whole storyline of the apartment building being designed as a housing project and the purpose of the building changing, all of that ties in with the British psycho-geography aspects really well. It becomes this place on a border, and that’s where a lot of folk horror happens—in these frontiers, and these places in between. I felt like Candyman was a good example of all this. There’s the building itself, then all the mirrors in the bathrooms come off and lead to another place. There are so many things about it that just fit.
Right! I think it all depends on how you approach it, your mental state and frame of reference as you approach it. And what you’re looking for. A lot of that gets reflected back at us. I also loved the inclusion of The Wind, because that was another example that, when people would ask me about examples of American folk horror, I felt like even if some of the other examples I was a little iffy on, The Wind fits. There’s a sense of removal from modern society, and these liminal border spaces like you mentioned earlier. Plus, I’m a sucker for the cinematography and for the Ben Lovett score.
There’s also the Demons of the Prairie pamphlet and the roving preacher. And like is mentioned in the documentary, the immigrant migration and the immigrant experience is a big part of folk horror. The contact between the different cultures as people new to the country meet those who have been here before. I think a lot of people just refer to The Wind as a western. That’s the more common categorization people have for it. But when I brought it up as folk horror, I don’t think the filmmakers were surprised. I think they knew when they were writing it that there was a folk horror aspect to the film, and that’s why that pamphlet is in the movie.
I bought the score to The Wind when Mondo and Death Waltz put it out on vinyl, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the Demons of the Prairie pamphlet included with the LP!
I have one too! I got it at the Toronto Film Festival when it played there.
So you mentioned earlier that the interviews would often spawn new interviews or fresh lines of research and inquiry. As the project continued to grow, did you always envision it as a feature, or did you ever consider going a more episodic route? With the film being broken into distinct chapters, I found myself pondering how this might work as a series on a service like Shudder.
Since Severin Films is the distributor, we were always intended the documentary to be a feature that we would release on Blu-ray. So we knew that for us, it would be a single release as a feature. If people watch it in parts, that’s fine. I don’t feel like people need to watch it all in a single sitting. That’s kind of why those chapters are there. It allows the viewer to digest the information a bit. We were always open to the idea that if we licensed it to a streaming service, that they may want to break it up into pieces. We were always fine with that. The main issue is that the chapters are all different lengths. Some of them are 15 minutes long, and others are 45 minutes. So it wouldn’t be quite as simple as just separating the six chapters into their own episodes. At Severin, we aren’t in the business of making series, so we didn’t create it that way for ourselves. We knew it would be a feature coming out on a Blu-ray when we released it.
With a project that has been in the works for this long, at some point within the last year certain aspects of production and development changed due to the pandemic. To an outside viewer, it didn’t seem that there was a large impact in the way the documentary is presented. I think I noticed one interview that may have been conducted remotely. Were there any unforeseen production challenges or any unexpected benefits that came about because of all the related changes?
The challenges were definitely around being able to film people in person. There was actually only one interview in the film that was done by Zoom. Everything else was done with a camera team or a camera person. The issue obviously was dealing with things internationally, and dealing with different cities and regions and whatever their local shutdown was like. In some places, we couldn’t interview people because they weren’t allowed to travel more than two miles from their house, or there was a curfew or whatever. Bernice Murphy, who we filmed in Ireland, we got right under the wire before she wouldn’t have been able to do that interview. For a few of the UK people I think it was like that, where the travel to get a camera person to them was a challenge. Not to mention that both the interviewee and the camera person have to be comfortable with the safety issues. So that was also an issue, where some people just weren’t comfortable with it and were only able to do it via Zoom. Unfortunately, there were people I wanted to be in the film that because of Covid we just couldn’t get in. I knew from the one Zoom interview that I’d done that I didn’t like the way it looked. The challenge was definitely being unable to film people, but the good thing is that’s probably what made me finish the movie. (laughs) I feel like I could have just kept going forever. Having issues around not being able to film people for interviews ended up being an encouragement to wrap things up. It really did provide a proper deadline to the movie.
So SXSW and COVID-19 were over your shoulder telling you, “You have to finish this!”
But also the good thing about the online festival world happening is that most festival are not going to consider a three-hour documentary at all. They won’t even watch it. They’ll just tell you no, because it’s basically taking up two time slots. If you’re doing a normal festival and you’re renting venues with limited space, a three-hour movie is awkward. It’s two time slots. It’s one ticket price, but two venue rentals. So why would they do that? But having the online festival worked in my favor, where that three-hour runtime wasn’t a problem since they didn’t have that same limitation on venue space. People are able to start and stop the movie if they need to. Once the movie premieres, it’s available through the online app for the duration of the festival.
The app for the festival is great! I’ve been using it all week, and haven’t had a single hiccup. This is my first festival using a dedicated app. I have it running on my Apple TV and hooked up to my surround sound. It’s not exactly the same as being in person at a festival, but it’s pretty nice nonetheless. We’ve got time for one last question, so I will wrap up with this… Aside from the Unholy Trinity and some of the more recent big titles, what would be some of your must-see recommendations for fans wanting to delve deeper into folk horror?
Let’s see… Definitely Demon, the 2015 Polish film. I absolutely loved it. A Field in England. I feel like a lot of people have seen it, but A Field in England is major for me. It’s one of my favorite folk horror films.
That is an experience!
Yes, and it’s so psychedelic. That’s one of the things I love about it, and I just love psychedelic culture in general. That combination of psychedelia and folk horror was really important for this documentary. There is a Russian film that I don’t know if people will be able to get it. It’s this film called Ich-chi that we only show briefly in the film. It just came out and started doing festivals last year, but then Covid happened and its festival life was kind of cut short. It only got to play a few places, which is how I saw it. It was one of my favorite films that I saw last year. It’s a folk horror film, but it wasn’t positioned as a folk horror film. I don’t know if the filmmakers consider it a folk horror film or thought about that when they were making it, but it’s from this region of Russia dealing with indigenous Sakha people, and it’s in the Sakha language, also called the Yakut language. It’s a region and a language you don’t see on film very often at all, and it fits in so beautifully with a lot of the other films we were talking about. Originally I wanted it to be part of a much bigger discussion in the documentary, but I felt like people just haven’t seen the film at all and I don’t want to give anything away. I just used some abstract shots from the movie, but nothing that would give anything away. That’s a movie I would urge people to seek out if it does come back to online festivals this year, or if someone picks it up for release. I hope the movie will make someone pick it up for release on Blu-ray! I really loved it, and I feel like it got a bad deal coming out during Covid.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror had its world premiere during SXSW Online 2021, and will be distributed by Severin Films. We’ll keep you posted on release details as we learn more!