On Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, the pleasures of talking head documentaries and the egomaniac viewer
One of the most thrilling documentaries of the year comes in unassuming dress and hides in the too often neglected and underestimated corners of genre film festivals. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror does what it says on the tin — the film, written and directed by multi-hyphenate Canadian author, critic, film programmer, podcaster, publisher and producer Kier-La Janisse, offers a thorough and illuminating look at the history of folk horror in cinema. But it also does a lot more.
It is always rather moving when horror cinema is treated seriously, just because it so often isn’t — at least, not in the mainstream. One need only open the newspaper and look at reviews of horror films from the most influential critics (particularly in the UK) to identify an unambiguous disdain for the genre, one that is so outdated it feels like a cursed relic from ancient times.
A 3+ hours long documentary about a now relatively popular but still niche branch of horror cinema is most probably aimed at dedicated horror fans, and it’s hard to imagine a general audience would even consider checking it out. But it would be great if they did, for Woodlands not only does not require any prior knowledge about the films it discusses — most importantly, it makes anyone who watches it re-discover the sheer pleasure of learning and the possibilities of straightforward documentary filmmaking, when it is well executed.
The film is divided into chapters, and one would be forgiven for reacting badly to this format at first glance. The era of overlong Netflix-style documentary series that could have been feature-length but are instead stretched out and cut up into insultingly repetitive segments is still upon us, and it is natural to have grown weary of everything that comes with them: classical talking heads interviews, repetitive use of archive footage and voiceover. Janisse however seems utterly untouched by the tendency to patronise that apparently plagues so many filmmakers today, and it only takes a few minutes to realise that we are in capable and assured hands. Her investigation into the genre (or rather, the “mode” of filmmaking that is folk horror, as writer Adam Scovell describes it in the film) is thorough, down to earth and precise, even as it deals with a kind of horror that is often slippery. While the vampire or the zombie film have quite clear and well-known characteristics and mythologies, folk horror often deals with the unseen — or, even more unsettling, with the mundane and the natural turned strange by the simple presence of a few candles or runes, of some ancient symbols carved in wood and stone, or simply of the moonlight.
Janisse’s detailed laying down of what folk horror actually is fascinates just as it reassures, but not because it mentions films and ideas around folk horror that viewers already anticipate. Though it begins as expected with a look at its origins in British cinema, with the classics Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man as the holy trinity of this mode of filmmaking, Woodlands is most soothing precisely because it never feels like it is simply going through the motions. With every interviewee being an actual expert of the field, generalisations and grand statements are avoided in favour of precise observations which, brought together, form part of a refreshingly granular analysis. We can safely assume that the off-screen director asked her contributors particularly pertinent and specific questions; the fact that she is a horror film expert herself no doubt helped the film reach a depth of argument all too rare in documentary cinema today.
Janisse herself appears in the film as an interviewee a few times and, like all the other contributors, always has something relevant and illuminating to say. These are not “gotcha” moments of the director stepping out from behind the camera to join her interviewees, steal the spotlight for a moment and demonstrate that she is just as cool or interesting as they are — the way one filmmaker does repeatedly in their own recent, much-praised and overlong film.
In respecting the trope of the talking-heads documentary, Janisse simultaneously returns it to its power and illuminates just how poorly it has been treated in recent years. The constant barrage of crudely made streaming documentaries, together with the rise in popularity of documentary cinema with general audiences, appears to have reduced the talking-head interview to a trope that signals authority and expertise, no matter what is actually being said. To many filmmakers, it is just a thing people do in documentaries; to some audiences, it simply indicates that they’re watching a documentary. Within this context, Janisse’s effort to have actually informative interviews in her film feels quietly revolutionary, and its effect on the viewer is all the more powerful.
The impression is one of utter delight, as the film excites our curiosity just as it fulfills its hunger. Some may say it feels like reading a really good history book, one from which most of us would naturally fail to retain every detail but would take great pleasure in revisiting. It almost feels wrong to describe it as an introduction to folk horror due to its length, but it is simply a very good one. Even if the viewer hasn’t seen any of the films mentioned, the roughly chronological and geographical progression of the argument is an engaging investigation on its own. The film clips, carefully selected to be economical and never too spoiler-y, are always in dialogue with the contributors’ insights, rather than mere illustrations of their words. Watching it, the impulse is to note down films to see, avenues to explore, and details to remember.
It’s an almost overwhelming experience that recalls epic TV docs such as O.J.: Made in America and the work of Ken Burns — or Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995). But the level of detail and the way it takes the time to explore areas that would have most likely been cut out of a more superficial piece (see the sections on the “Indian burial ground” and on South American horror) make it particularly rare in the world of documentaries about cinema. Janisse does not feel the need to dumb down or shorten her documentary simply because it is about cinema rather than about world events, crime or history.
The fact that she also does not seek to justify the film’s existence or length by prefacing it with mentions of her own enthusiasm for folk horror also feels unusual and invigorating. Instead of gesturing at a presumed audience of like-minded fans (who are sure to find the film by themselves anyway), she lets folk horror speak for itself, thus opening up the possibility that the film may ultimately interest and seduce people who knew nothing of this mode of filmmaking three hours earlier.
Even then, the film does not use any of the crude tools of documentary filmmaking to hold its audience hostage and glued to their seat. Although there is a clear progression to proceedings, Woodlands is far from formulaic, and fortunately does not seek to keep the viewer in some sort of artificial suspense over what happens next. It does not withhold information or feature twists and third-act revelations. On the contrary, one of the reasons we keep watching is the sense that the filmmaker does not patronise. Woodlands trusts the value of its own argument and the intellect of its audience.
It may seem odd to point out all the things that the film does not do. But the fact is that many documentary filmmakers today are simply doing too much, playing with all the wonderful tools of documentary cinema either indiscriminately, or with the barely concealed ambition to manipulate their audience. All the while offering to teach so much about a fascinating and often elusive film mode — one that is, perhaps not incidentally, used as a shortcut for creepiness in a lot of horror movies today — Woodlands also reminds us how it feels when all a film asks of you is your attention. Although Janisse’s film is long, it is anything but self-indulgent.