Woodlands Dark is exceedingly thoughtful and never less than riveting despite its length, a film destined to become an important work of criticism.
In 2012, writer and film programmer Kier-La Janisse published House of Psychotic Women, a tremendous and essential text, part autobiography, part confessional, part film-guide roadmap to decades of cinematic depictions of female trauma, desire, and death. It’s one of the great movie books of all time, and Janisse, already well-established in the horror community, deservedly saw her profile rise. Her latest project, the epic documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, is subtitled A History of Folk Horror, and like Psychotic Women, it’s at once both broad and hyper-specific, comprehensive yet deliberately not a complete catalog. It’s also utterly engrossing and unsurprisingly open-minded about its thesis, which is that “folk horror” is less a genre than a mode, a set of themes and ideas that can be endlessly reconfigured but nevertheless speak to each other.
Running a whopping 3 hours and 15 minutes, Woodlands is never at any point even a little bit boring as it delves into not just traditional ideas of folk horror — say, the distinctly British paganism of a film like The Wicker Man, to use a key text and repeated example here — but works of science fiction and fantasy, other genres like westerns, works from all over the world, and even documentaries. Frequently, digest-docs like this amount to clip reels of strange but famous genre examples, punctuated by enthusiastic plot summaries or production anecdotes from famous talking heads, winding up mostly remedial. Janisse’s film follows no specific chronology, and the movies it references flow intuitively into each other, punctuated by actual analysis from writers, filmmakers, and artists in multiple disciplines, and the clips she chooses from literally dozens of different films wind up creating a dizzying collage of images that constantly communicate with each other. It’s truly a delightful, landmark film and a worthy follow-up, destined to become an important work of criticism.
You can currently stream Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched on Shudder.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.