OUT OF THE BOX is both a declaration of intent and an admission of guilt. Whether it be for promotional purposes or my personal collection, I have acquired a number of box sets. Many I have spent money on, often with the intention of turning my viewing into content. The reality, though, is that each of these box sets ends up defeating. Covering an entire set in one go feels superficial, and I often give up on the entire endeavor before I can even begin. OUT OF THE BOX is, for me, an admission that I simply will not cover an entire box set in one go; instead, I have created a space where I can move through these collections one film at a time. Today’s selection comes from the Severin box set All The Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror.
In order to explain my excitement when I heard about this boxset from Severin, I have to give you, the reader, two essential pieces of autobiographical information. One is that while I am currently not doing anything in relation to my degree other than writing and talking about movies, I am a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary with an interest in belief, politics, and the spooky. Granted, my connection to the practice of religion (or more interestingly, to the study of religion in culture and media) is, at this point, very much a side interest, one that fuels a ton of what I do for fun now. Thus, anything exploring folk horror is appealing to me for the ways it would combine our relationship to our past, the beliefs of those ancestors, and how all of that forms the films people create.
That alone would explain my interest, but maybe not my joyous anticipation. The second bit of info you need is my history with an important film of what is called the “Unholy Trinity,” The Wicker Man. I caught this film on cable when I was maybe 14 and have been obsessed with it ever since. How could a film with this little gore, almost no scares of any kind, and an ending so ambiguous (as I saw it at least) be so effective as a HORROR film? I have some ideas now as to how and why it works, but it has taken me years of watching it (and maybe a bit of my student loan debt, honestly) to get to the hunches I have about the film. Thus, when this set was announced, despite not technically having the money to afford it, I went ahead and added to my debt load to acquire it!
It will then surprise no one that I was very pleased that this set begins with the documentary conceived and directed by Kier-La Janisse. I had seen this documentary as part of an online film fest but having the opportunity to see it as an introduction to this set and write about it as the beginning of my journey into this collection was great. This is, of course, in part because my interest in this genre is not just personal, but academic. These films connect to the things I find fascinating in the world and this set gives me plenty of opportunities to explore these artifacts. I was also beyond excited because Janisse was the guiding force of this film. I loved her book The House of Psychotic Women and I was hoping Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched would be as thought-provoking and entertaining as that effort was. In a brief feature on this disc, Kier-La Janisse explains that this film began life not as a massive effort to cover the breadth and depth of folk horror filmmaking, but as a special feature on the Severin release of The Blood on Satan’s Claw. The beginning of the film reflects these origins in its focus not only on the Unholy Trinity of British Folk Horror – The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Witchfinder General — but also in the exploration of folk horror themes from British fiction into British television.
The documentary cannot stop there, though, and as it follows the threads of the genre, it soon expands to include an international perspective, including a post-colonial critique and the inclusion of indigenous voices, both as critique of the horror written by their colonizers and on their own narratives.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched utilizes a few specific modes for its story telling. First, of course, is the mode of the talking head expert and what we are given is a variety of scholars and critics, as well as some of the actors and filmmakers whose work played a part in forming this genre. There is also a ton of footage from the movies and television shows being discussed, as well as some stock footage of countrysides and spooky woods. There are also a series of animations that were great, some truly inspired and creepy material. These were somewhat limited in their aesthetic, though, and were less prevalent towards the end of the film when the focus had transitioned to a more international idea. It is likely the illustrator/animator/designer who made these segments was only familiar with the folk horror that has become associated more with the British tradition than with a more international focus. However, the film does not linger in the British isles but expands out, and not all of the artistic notes struck at the beginning of the film work for the later part of the film that expands to a much more diverse narrative.
This expansion was the most interesting and challenging aspect for me as a viewer. Not because I wanted the film to focus on a narrow scope of nations, like the UK, the States, or even Europe. It is that, as one expands the scope of focus on folk horror, even just within cinema, one sees a variety of ways of approaching this kind of cinema. For many of the nations with colonial histories, folk horror is responsive to a more modern sensibility. In these contexts, there is a feeling of the forgotten or repressed, the inner truth of a community or of a history that comes back, unexpected, and with terrible consequences. This paradigm is not universal, though, as one expands out. Many forms of folk horror in cinema are more of a reflective nature; they retell the folk stories native to the cultures of the filmmakers. This realization was challenging for me, not because I didn’t want the insight, but because I was forced to rethink my own paradigm assumptions about the genre! For me, folk horror was very often reflective of a very deep insecurity in the nature of the colonial subject, a Western and often white figure. Perhaps a great example of this which is only briefly touched upon in this film is Rawhead Rex. This film suggests that under the surface of “Christian” or “rational” or “civilized,” or some other awful descriptor, the real nature of the folk, the people of the land, is horrible. Rex is not a monster from beyond, but from within. This theme runs through a ton of these narratives, but specifically ones from very particular contexts. It is not so true in places where the folk horror cinema reflects not a meta meditation on the nature of modern society, but a retelling of ancient stories that have been a part of the fabric of a culture for some time, or at least reflect those sentiments.
That is a long way of saying I had some of my own shiny pet theories smashed by these insights, and while that was difficult, it was WELCOME! Of course, the film does spend a good deal more time on these themes and contexts, especially those influenced and formed by the British countryside, more than on other areas. This is the problem with beginning with the Unholy Trinity and British folk horror; there is so much rich material and tradition there which is still present and active in modern filmmaking, it takes up a wide chunk of discussion. The film represents in its own pacing a realization that this cinema goes far beyond that tradition, while still trying to respect its richness and influence, and it is a difficult balance to strike.
For those unfamiliar with the documentary, now might be a good time to acknowledge that the film is 3 hours and 14 minutes long. Perhaps, if the funding and will had been there, the documentary might have worked better and more consistently as a limited documentary series on a streaming service. That is not what we have, though. What we have is a 3 hour film slowly revealing to its audience that it could not possibly be the final word on this topic. The film is in fact concerned with representation and attempting to present the diversity of its subject matter, but it simply cannot cover all the ground available. The topic, the genre, the folk themselves are too rich and prolific to bend to such compression.
In this sense, I am addressing (perhaps “subtweeting”) a consistent criticism of the film: that it is in fact too European, too white, really, despite attempting to incorporate more voices and perspectives. If that is how you feel, I am fine with that. I mean, what isn’t too white? Almost nothing. I think, though, if one approaches this film with a bit more charity, it is obvious that this is not meant as a final word but as a beginning. As such, I feel a noble effort is made to be sure the audience is exposed to a wide variety of folk horror film cinema. It isn’t perfect, but it is engaging, interesting, and at times quite beautiful. Of course, as with all things, there is another side to this coin. Perusing both the IMDb and Letterboxd reviews of this film, there are the inevitable reactionary voices wringing their hands as to why a documentary about horror would “INJECT POLITICS INTO THE FILM???” I bring this up not to validate the perspective of these mouth-breathing mutants, but simply to remind us that there are many who will find even this incomplete attempt to explore the voices of those whose history is often hidden beneath blood and conquest as leftist propaganda. I am not interested in resolving this for you. If you came only for the commentary on The Wicker Man and don’t wanna know about other cultures’ history of folk horror cinema and are not interested in, let’s say, commentary on the figure of the witch as the demonization of female power by a patriarchal society, this is not gonna work for you. However, some time is spent exploring the dead, British, male writers who influenced their folk horror filmmaking.
Regardless of how you feel about the balance the film strikes, it is hard to ignore some of the quality filmmaking on display here. The editing is magnificent, highlighting some incredible films and the striking visuals of those films. For a documentary that is so very long, I felt the pacing was handled very well. The film segments represent not just regions but also specific focuses and themes found in folk horror taken in a broader sense. One excellent section was focused specifically on witchcraft in these films and stories. Not only was the quality of discourse excellent, the editing from one voice to another was really well done and built towards a well-made point about the patriarchal response to feminine power. While Woodlands Dark… is undoubtedly a resource for film seekers looking to expand and diversify their watchlists, it is also unafraid to point out the way its ideas are present in more accessible and even Hollywood films. For me as a viewer, this is a huge strength. Yes, I was making notes to try and find some of the more obscure films I was unaware of, but it also makes sense academically to engage with more popular media. To point not just to a film like Viy but also to The VVitch was simply a good effort to include as much perspectives as possible to understand the phenomena itself.
There is a ton to recommend this movie, even if aspects were perhaps incomplete. I was struck by the music utilized in the film; there is a lot of strange folk music that adds to the haunting vibe of the whole project. There is a ton here, I think, to satisfy all manner of viewer, and while the insights given could always be more diverse, there were still some very interesting people featured. I would welcome a documentary now that broke down each of these areas into more focused topics. Let’s get our US Folk Horror doc discussing indigenous and black voices; let’s explore the various folk horrors of Eastern Europe or Asia; let’s spend some time in South America with the variations of La Llorona. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is not the final word on folk horror. However, it is a super compelling and engaging way to begin my journey through this boxset. I am curious to discover so many films that I have never heard of prior and this guide post will be an important source of insight as I explore the set. The film managed to keep me engaged for an impressive running time and expanded some of my own assumptions, showing me how my biases were informing my own theoretical work. It is well worth your time to check out. You can find the boxset here and the standalone film here.