[SXSW Review] WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED
WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED l Courtesy of Severin Films
WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED is an informative and fascinating documentary, which is of particular interest if horror films of folk nature are your interest. It starts first with when the term “folk horror” was first used and charts what films were initially described as folk horror. But though the term may be European, what falls into the category is not solely films from European or formerly colonized nations. Even those bloody histories shape the way folk horror is told and who is portrayed as the danger. 

Directed and written by Kier-La Janisse, the film will leave horror fans creating a list of “must-see” films because it’s likely there are more than a few you haven’t seen. In British horror and even American folk horror, the pagan or “old ways” are viewed as the enemy in the film. There is a danger that, unless people remain vigilant, what was will come back to be what is, and this is an especially colonial view that bleeds inexorably into the films and stories. The film understands and acknowledges this. 

Horror films are about what is feared and what do colonizers fear? Someone colonizing them or someone punishing them for what has been taken away. As such, the othering is often anything that colonialism did away with. WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED does not hide from this lens. Albeit we can still see issues in the telling of these stories in the documentary. Of note is the way they talk about Mary Bell, a child who killed two little boys and they talk about her cold nature while giving no real acknowledgment to her upbringing of abuse that created her. 

Folk horror usually has an aspect of nature and folks who live in nature versus the more industrial, city-dwelling people. They also look at certain plot devices that became common but were false, like “Indian burial grounds” which was especially common in American films. Reducing multiple nations to a single insulting label is harmful and continues narratives that harm. It’s also precisely why many films featured narratives where Indigenous people were the villains, to continue to allow this to sit in the minds of generations to come. We are starting to see more films told by Indigenous people; however, it’s still woefully few. 

Still from WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED

The documentary charts through time and ties societal issues and events to the kind of folk horror that is made. So we see films like Midsommar analyzed through the lens of society’s views on time and grief. It also critiques the fear society has of anyone in a community outside society’s purview. Again, the other is always feared because of how society mistreats the other. We see this aspect in and outside the film. People are often terrified when Black people group up away from colonial gazes. They also discuss movies that focus on hoodoo as it is divorced from religion and films can push the evil narrative. 

Interestingly, there is little difference or evolution between folk horror films then and now in Western history, because those telling it are still, for the most part, the same. They explore the difference between folk horror in a colonial setting as well as folk horror in other countries, but the focus is primarily on western folk horror. We are slowly embracing other stories and narratives that are outside of the typical gaze, so we are moving away from the fear of the other. This often means pagan, country, non-white, and anything considered away from the mainstream. Films worldwide, such as La Llorona, are using folk tales to highlight horrific histories and the weeping woman is no longer a story of terror for all but reserved for those who evade justice. 

Overall, I loved the documentary and they had some of my favorite films and even got to spy Mattie Do, director of Dearest Sister, talk about the history and evolution of folk horror. The only issue is too much was from folk horror from the colonial perspective. Even many of the speakers were white. Despite this, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED is worth a viewing, especially if you love talking about horror movies.

WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

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