“Folk horror” is a term of relatively recent vintage — or at least popularity — that only grows more broad as “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” spends three and a quarter hours trying to define it. Still, a slippery thesis doesn’t detract from the pleasures of this documentary from genre scholar and programmer Kier-La Janisse. She draws on alluring clips from more than 100 films, plus myriad interviews, to survey an alternately lurid and surreal cinematic (as well as television) field of mostly rural tales inspired by traditional superstitions and lore.
A must for fantasy-fest and midnight-section programmers, the SXSW premiere will be providing genre fans with a long list of hitherto-unfamiliar titles to chase down for a long time to come. Production company Severin Films, itself a leading restorer and home-formats distributor of vintage cult movies, should find a ready-made audience in its own customer base—which Janisse’s film will no doubt help expand.
Beyond the director herself, the various authorities heard from here (just a couple in archival interviews) include veteran and next-generation filmmakers, film historians, genre-cinema press, folkloricists and occult experts. They offer a wide gamut of insights. But initially “Woodland” keeps its focus narrow, introducing folk horror as illustrated by an “unholy trilogy” of British movies released a half-century ago.
There’s 1968’s “Witchfinder General” (released in the U.S. as “The Conqueror Worm”), a memorably harrowing tale of Inquisition-style religious hysteria run amok that was sadly the last film for hugely promising director Michael Reeves, who died just after its release. The directors of the other two are still alive to discuss them: Robin Hardy’s much-loved original 1973 “The Wicker Man,” a subversive black comedy pitting paganism against pious “civilized” propriety; and Piers Haggard’s lesser-known 1971 “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” a period piece in which (unlike “Witchfinder”) fears of demonic possession among villagers turn out to be all too valid.
What all three have in common is a rural setting, as well as primitive fears of the unknown, of nature, and of women as vessels for erotic or supernatural power. They reflect the Vietnam War era’s rising cynicism toward bloodstained, hypocritical authority, plus its simultaneous “back to the land” movement, which sought refuge from callous modernity in nostalgia for ostensibly simpler lifestyles and pre-Christian mysticism.
The second of six chaptered sections here expands on that template to locate folk horror’s formative essence in an array of British film, literary and television examples. They include intriguing excerpts from numerous sub-feature-length BBC “Ghost Story for Christmas” programs, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, that remain obscure outside the U.K. Then there’s a focus on specifics of paganism and witchcraft in the quasi-genre, and equivalents to all of the above in American folk-horror cinema (also encompassing several memorable TV movies).
The next-to-last segment provides a sprawling if somewhat random overview of similar exercises around the world, with only Australia and Brazil enjoying more than cursory exploration. (One suspects this chapter easily could have been expanded into its own three-hour feature.) As in some of the U.S. titles glimpsed, note is made of works in which crimes against a colonized region’s original inhabitants are avenged by the return of a conquered society’s spiritual forces, or the animosity from the stolen land itself.
Finally, there’s an equally international look at an argued current “folk-horror revival” via filmmakers like Robert Eggers (“The Witch,” “The Lighthouse”) and Mattie Do (of Laotian features “Dearest Sister” and “The Long Walk”). Here as elsewhere, “Woodlands” sometimes embraces excerpts from features, shorts and TV content that are “horror” only by the most liberal measure, stretching the elastic of its theme even further.
Those excerpts are invariably in excellent condition, allowing for the lower visual quality of videotaped old shows. Apart from the rare instance when an original trailer is used, editors Winnie Cheung and Benjamin Shearn maximize the variably poetical and disturbing images on tap by means of diverse, imaginative montages. Adding flavor are traditional morbid folk songs on the soundtrack, poems intoned by Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy (surviving lead actors in “Satan’s Claw” and “Witchfinder,” respectively) and animation by Ashley Thorpe. We also get animated paper-collage sequences designed by Guy Maddin, which in themselves are artful and evocative but feel like awkwardly inserted entr’actes that never quite mesh with the long but otherwise smoothly engaging progress.
Commentators speculate that the appeal of folk horror is rooted in an alienation from more soulful beliefs (and fears) that’s only grown from the dawn of industrialization to the current digital era. That pining for the metaphysical is heightened when our future seems so uncertain, and as one interviewee puts it, “All the atrocities are happening right now. … It’s people, not the supernatural.” Just as superheroes have largely displaced the ordinary kind, so folk horror echoes a retreat from ugly reality toward the comparative escape of non-denominational signs and wonders.