This documentary from Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) begins on the beaten track with a section introducing the ‘unholy trinity’ of folk horror — British films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man. A few filmmakers (Piers Haggard, Robin Hardy) and performers (Ian Ogilvy) are interviewed and the friendly, familiar likes of Jonathan Rigby, Kat Ellinger, William Fowler, Vic Pratt and Jeremy Dyson, veterans of many a BluRay extra and horror documentary, chip in with useful footnotes. Rigby digs deep into the etymology of the term ‘folk horror’, leading to some discussion of writers like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Oddly given how thorough (and long) the film is, there’s little about the folk music, arts and crafts, and myth/history, though there are a few mentions of psychogeography and hauntology.
The film then moves onto a ‘roots’ section, looking at UK TV versions of MR James and such well-remembered pieces as the serials The Owl Service and Children of the Stones and the TV plays Robin Redbreast and Penda’s Fen. News, perhaps, to Americans, but territory fairly well mapped in the UK, often by folk who pop up here and talk about works from the 1960s and ‘70s that have lingered in the folk memory of Britain, exactly like fairy stories or old wives tales or playground rumours. We have to make some connections for ourselves – the same actor, Gareth Thomas, uncovers the mutated ape man skeleton in Quatermass and the Pit and is struck by mystic power when touching a megalith in Children of the Stones … and images from Requiem for a Village or the work of Andrew Kotting are juxtaposed with bits from Psychomania and Eye of the Devil.
Then, we get more chapters, and step by step we’re in deeper, darker, less familiar woods, considering folk horrors from traditions outside Anglo-American cinema, taking in la llorona of Latin America and the yokai of Japan, and a wealth of art-horror-ethnolocal films from Czechoslovakia, Russia, Scandinavia, the Far East and other less-visited regions. Though directors are sometimes interviewed and occasionally name-checked, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched treats films as if they were folk tales – not crafted by storytellers, but growing out of the culture, interesting as expressions of ritual, societal obsession, weathervanes for the public mood, embodiments of mass neuroses or needs or wishes that will never go away.
Over the course of its 194 minutes – watching it is like bingeing a TV series, which may make it tough to program – this metamorphoses from a standard horror highlights doc into something more like LA Plays Itself. The expert comments become snippet-like voice-overs, and a bountiful wealth of clips creates a collage (another folk art form) that amounts to something like a Golden Bough of the Movies. A lot of animal skulls are repurposed as clothing accessories, low-angle cameras look up through the tree canopy, cults of robed pagans solemnly chant and sacrifice, worms and other creepy-crawlies ooze in glistening high-focus close-up, standing stones weather the ages, duped outsiders follow paths to their death (it’s noted that outside of the US/UK we’re less likely to find the plot format of a normal person overwhelmed by a pagan community and more often just immersed in a different culture), corn dollies and scarecrows and wood carvings have a sinister aspect, and thin reedy voices murmur old old songs.