The documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched examines the history of folk horror films, mostly starting from the founding trio–The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General–and evolving from there.
The film is strongest on British folk horror, where there’s a more cohesive sense of genre. It can examine interesting edge cases, like non-horror movies dealing with the decline of rural villages, and it can bring in interviewers to talk about specific techniques and choices in specific movies. One of the best observations here is that while American historical films have a sense of the mythic West, where space goes out and out endlessly, British films concentrate on the sense of layered and unearthed history, with meaning emerging from all the accumulated years of a place’s occupation; there’s a trend in British folk horror to have dangerous artifacts be literally dug up out of the earth. The movie covers everything from M.R. James adaptations to children’s folk horror (and how Doctor Who brushes up against it) to how Witchfinder General presaged The Wild Bunch.
It cannot, alas, bring anything like that kind of depth to its international and contemporary sections, which feel more like a barrage of titles. After a while, there’s also the sense that the label is being applied more and more haphazardly; genres should be elastic, but there are cases here where they’re stretched until the elastic snaps. (Ghost stories are not automatically folk horror just because they too contain links to the past.) Still, there are some good observations in these sections, especially the distinction between films that portray folk horror intruding on modern life (or modern life wandering into folk horror) and films that dramatize the folk horror and treat it as part of the established world the characters already know they’re living in.
Even with weak spots, however, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a rich and intriguing documentary that will expand any to-watch list. Moreover, one of its finest aspects is its own cinematic approach, which makes this stand out in a world of more visually dull or unambitious documentaries. Here, we get not only talking heads and film clips but paper art, poetry readings, and haunting ballad performances; this embrace of horror elements in its presentation as well as its content serves Woodlands well.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is streaming on Shudder.