“So what exactly is folk horror?” “Are there any American folk horror films?” “Would you consider (insert horror movie title here) a folk horror movie?” If you and your friends are anything like me and mine, you’ve likely had some variation of this conversation over the last ten years or so. And these are but a few of the topics director Kier-La Janisse delves into in her epic new documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. I don’t use the word “epic” flippantly here. Writer/producer/editor/programmer Janisse’s documentary must have been a mammoth undertaking, made even more impressive by the fact that this is her feature-length debut.

The film starts out at a logical point—the so called “Unholy Trinity” of films that kicked off the genre: Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man, and Blood on Satan’s Claw. These films, central to the cinematic folk horror canon, were released between 1968 and 1973. Together they comprise the most obvious celluloid touchstones of folk horror, influencing to some extent almost all others that followed. Through an extensive series of film clips and interviews (both archival and captured for this documentary), Woodlands Dark delves deep into the inspirations for these movies, covering their folkloric and literary forebears. Dozens of interviews include some of the films’ directors, screenwriters, and actors, as well as other scholars, writers, directors, critics, and artists who are folk horror devotees.

From this starting point, the film proceeds through a number of different chapters, examining literary antecedents, cultural influences, global expressions, modern folk horror films, and how the genre—like all great horror films—can reflect the specific fears and troubles of our own society and times. Chapters are often separated with enchanting photo collages created by Guy Maddin, and animated by Zena Grey and Brendt Rioux, coupled with music or poetry. Whether you’re a folk horror neophyte or one of the wise old ones, you’ll undoubtedly find new films to add to your watch list, and new perspectives to consider.

undoubtedly the most in-depth exploration of folk horror yet in a visual medium

Throughout the film’s runtime—more than three hours—an expansive view of folk horror is provided. During my first viewing, I found myself repeatedly excited to share this film with the previously mentioned friends. Many of the films we discussed, including a number of those we questioned whether they could reasonably be considered folk horror, make an appearance here. While the viewer may not agree with every film discussed or conclusion reached, Kier-La Janisse’s documentary offers an idea that is equally fascinating (and some may consider just as transgressive) as her chosen subject. In an interview with Adam Scovell, he proposes that folk horror not be considered a concrete genre, but rather a mode in the musical sense—allowing certain evocative notes and themes to be utilized without having to strictly adhere to an unyielding idea of what constitutes folk horror.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is undoubtedly the most in-depth exploration of folk horror yet in a visual medium, and likely among the most in-depth in any medium. There are a few minor caveats, but none that should dissuade you from seeking out the documentary. This isn’t a film you can go into half-heartedly. Its length and the sheer amount of information provided demand the viewer’s active engagement. The list of interviewees and the films covered are nigh-exhaustive, though given the modern impact of directors like Ben Wheatley and Ari Aster on the genre, their absence does stand out. Given the film’s structure, I could easily see it being presented as an episodic series, which might make the depth of information more approachable. But these are minor points, and not every viewer will feel the same way. For anyone with an interest in folk horror, Kier-La Janisse’s documentary serves as both a primer to the genre as well as a masters-level thesis. So turn off your phone, and follow the winding, shadowy trail into Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror had its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021 on Tuesday March 16th at 8:00pm.