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November 08, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves - 1968)

Keir-La Janisse - 2021
Severin Films

Even with a total running time of over three hours, it would be a mistake to consider Keir-La Janisse's survey of folk horror films the last word on that subject. There will still be debate on what exactly constitutes folk horror for that matter. Be that as it may, there is much to glean, both from the various film clips and the thoughts of several cineastes and filmmakers. Even if it was only Janisse speaking for herself, those familiar with her previous work, especially her book, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, are aware of the length and breadth of her cinematic knowledge.

The film begins with an overview of the three films that constitute the "unholy trinity" - Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan's Claw, and The Wicker Man (1973). Personal note here - I saw all three films around the time of their initial release, with Witchfinder General in its edited American-International release version, The Conqueror Worm. Fans of the first two films listed will be delighted to know that Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy contribute off-screen poem readings, along with Ogilvy discussing his work with director Michael Reeves. Beyond the facts that these are three British films made between 1968 and 1973, is the establishment of the constant theme of folk horror films being about tensions between the past and present.

How the past is manifested in these films is where there is a difference. While British films tend to be about secret societies with pagan beliefs, American folk horror films often have stories about groups that practice what has been described as "weird Christianity". Colonialism is addressed in Australian horror films, but also briefly touched in films that directly or indirectly look at the genocide of Native Americans. Jewish folk horror is limited to Demon (2015), a film that both looks back at Poland during World War II and more current Polish-Jewish relations. I would have liked to have seen inclusion of The Golem (2018) which takes the title character out of the confines of the ghetto and into a countryside shtetl. Asian folk horror primarily is represented by Japan, including such well-known films as Kwaidan and Onibaba as well as the clips from several black cat movies.

So back to that three hour running time. Maybe this should have been a longer series that went into some of its chapters more deeply. The chapter on international folk horror involves a bit of globe hopping that sometimes feels more like a tourist's view of select highlights. I know from my own viewing experience that there is so much more to Thai folk horror than Nang Nak, with my own time living in Thailand in 2007, when a new ghost story seemed to appear in theaters on a regular basis. Just the period of the importable Asian Extreme films needs to be placed in its cultural context. It should also be mentioned that while a couple of films from South America are included, there are no films inspired by African folklore.

I am familiar with several of the participants here, a couple of whom are online acquaintances. Included are film scholars Jonathan Rigby, Samm Deighan, Jasper Sharp and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, festival producer Briony Kidd and Lao-American filmmaker Mattie Do. The number of film excerpts will provide both the serious cinephile, the fan, and the more casual viewer a good selection of choices for viewing pleasure or further research. As part of the Denver Film Festival, Woodlands Dark is available both for in-person and virtual screenings. Additionally, three films cited by Janisse, Alison's Birthday, Clearcut and Eyes of Fire are part of the festival's in-person programming.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 8, 2021 06:39 AM