Last week, Kier-La Janisse celebrated the world premiere of her expansive folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched as part of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. The project celebrates folklore and folk horror from Britain, the U.S. and all over the world over the course of three-plus hours, and it was announced just a few days ago that Janisse’s doc picked up the Audience Award for this year’s SXSW Midnighters slate as well.
Daily Dead recently had the honor of speaking with Janisse about Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, and during our interview, she discussed how the project initially started off as a bonus feature for Severin, but eventually evolved into the mega-doc that it is today. Janisse also chatted about the research process, trying to whittle everything down for the project, and more.
What was the catalyst behind Woodlands? Was it just something you'd always wanted to do, or was there something that made the timing feel right for you to embark on this journey?
Kier-La Janisse: Well, folk horror is something I've always been interested in for a long time. I mean, definitely before the term “folk horror” started being used back in 2012, 2013. I remember running a magazine and commissioning somebody to do an article about folk horror because I realized this was a thing that was very big right now. And looking back now, I see it as being fairly early on compared to a lot of other North American publications writing about folklore. So it was definitely something I was interested in. I was a big Wicker Man fan as a teenager, I went and visited one of the locations by myself. I went all the way up to the Scottish Highlands and visited the harbor scene at the beginning of The Wicker Man.
But how the movie itself came about, it wasn't as though I had always thought, "Oh, someday, I'm going to make a film about folk horror." I never thought I would ever make a film about anything. So I mean, making this film was kind of a surprise in many ways, because I never planned on being a director. I never had considered that or wanted that. If anything, people have asked me about that over the years, because I've been a writer and a film programmer and people have always asked me whether filmmaking was the eventual goal, and it never was for me. I worked for Severin Films as my day job and I'd work on editing and producing featurettes for them and we were going to be releasing Blood on Satan's Claw. We had a bunch of extras that were already done because there was a British re-issue of Blood on Satan's Claw right before it, so there were a lot of brand new extras that already existed. And in order to give our release something different from what was on the other releases, I proposed to my boss, David Gregory, that somebody on the Severin team should consider making a half-an-hour-long folk horror documentary.
At that time, I was not a person who was even producing stuff at Severin, I was literally just an editor. So it hadn't occurred to me that I would be the person doing this. I was just suggesting it for someone else to do and then David was just like, "Okay, go do it. This is how long you have to hand it in. Don't spend more than this much money interviewing people." And it just started like that. I was like, "Oh, okay. I just have to arrange it myself? Okay." And that part of it was actually easier than I thought in terms of organizing all the interviews and everything because I had so much experience as press and as a film programmer, so I knew a lot of filmmakers. I also had started The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, which is a school of horror theory and history.
So I've been paying attention to a lot of scholars over the previous ten years and who was studying what, and who specializes in what. I did feel like I was very much in tune with who the people would be that I would need to talk to for something like this. And luckily, because of film programming, I knew filmmakers in places so that I could ask them, "Can you go film somebody for me?" So a lot of that stuff just kind of fell together. Originally, it was just going to be a short thing, but then after I handed in my first rough cut, it was two hours long and I didn't know what to cut because so much of it was interesting to me and seemed to have a lot of possibility in terms of where it could go. Luckily my boss, David Gregory, just said, "Instead of trying to figure out ways to cut it down, why don't you just keep going and make it into a feature? Interview more people, try to make your wish list of who you would want to talk to if you were making a feature about this topic." So then it just kind of grew and grew from there.
Speaking to that, you could have released this about British folk horror and there's so much content there, you probably could have even expanded that to three hours alone. So when you were going through all these elements of British folk horror, American folk horror or folklore, and then folklore from around the world, how did you go about all of this expansive material and finding a way to distill it for this documentary? It's three hours and 13 minutes and some odd seconds, but yet this could have been six or seven hours long really in the grand scheme of things.
Kier-La Janisse: Yeah, it was definitely hard to whittle everything down to something that was a manageable feature length. I think that the focus though became, instead of trying to list every movie, and there are going to be fans watching it who will be bummed out that a certain movie they liked is not mentioned or covered at all, but it was important for me to stick to some of the big ideas, the overarching ideas, and then bring the films in as they support those ideas. So that made it possible to cut it down a lot and still talk about a lot of things, because it meant that instead of going like, first there was this film and then there's this film and then there's this film, or even going country by country like that in the international section, the only way that we could kind of keep it a manageable length was to focus on core or central ideas and then bring the films in as they touched on those things.
Some of the ideas became obvious that they are present in folk horror all around the world, so things like psychogeography, that concept, which is very strong in a lot of British folk horrors, actually repeated in a lot of folk horror around the world, which makes sense. It's like, bad things happen on the land in this village, in this country, whatever, and that landscape is haunted by what has happened there. So that is a really common thing that occurs in folk horror everywhere. But then there were other things that became obvious, which was that, when you talk about British folk horror and you interviewed people talking about it, one of the main things that they're constantly bringing up is how these old folk customs and these old beliefs are usually presented as something that's in the past, that's dark, that's scary. We don't want to go back to this.
But when you look at folk horror that's not from a colonial culture, that's not from Britain, that's not from a white settler in America and white settler in Australia or white settler in Brazil, for instance, if you look at folk horror in Eastern Europe or places where they aren't known for going around and being colonizers, the horror tends to be something that they have to use these folk customs and beliefs in order to fight the thing that's the scary thing. So these customs are actually empowering supports for people to fight things that are scary to them, whereas in colonial folk horror, those things that the people believe, those people are scary because they believe all those things. And that was a really interesting thing that I had not thought about until it started to just come up in some of the movies when you think about it from different places.
Were there other surprises that came up as you were digging into everything, that as the storyteller and as the person who's putting together this material, you were like, "Wow, this is taking on a life of its own in ways I wasn't expecting?"
Kier-La Janisse: Well, I think all of it was sort of like that because when I originally planned on making it, it was just really going to be focused on British folk horror. Even that concept of there being folk horror that wasn't either British or tied to the British tradition, was something I didn't really think about until I was making this project. So that was a surprise to me. Also, something I hadn't thought about was that it was going to get pretty heavy politically in a way that I don't have a background for necessarily.
When you're dealing with a lot of British folk horror, they talk about their history, and they talk about the landscape, and they talk about all the battles that have happened there, but they have this very nostalgic way that they kind of look back at like, "Oh, we have such an interesting history in our little country." Whereas when you look at America, people don't think that in America, they're not like, "Oh, wow, we have this really interesting history of all this slavery and genocide." People are more likely to not want to think about it or talk about it. They don't want to think about stuff lingering from that.
And so America doesn't look at its country being this magical place like a lot of the British people look at England as being this magical country with this really interesting history. Obviously, America does have a really interesting history, but people don't look at it with that lens at all, they tend to just want to, "We have to figure out how to get past this." So once I got out of England and I started dealing with America, it just became obvious how a lot of the things that had to be talked about were going to be more unpleasant, and then that continued as I went to Australia and stuff like that. There are just a lot of unpleasant things dealing with white settler culture. Then also, it's made me start thinking about even the term “folk” and “folk horror” in a way that the term folk is used primarily to describe something that is considered this quaint thing from the past that the simple people do or whatever.
I was like, "Well, how are people going to think about this if I go interview people in Asia or in these other countries and they're like, "Well, we don't consider those folk beliefs. Those are just our beliefs. Those are our current beliefs." So all of a sudden, it just felt like it was very heavy and I felt very much in this role of the white settler trying to decode this in a way and wondering whether I actually had the kind of political or social background to be the right person doing it. I knew I knew a lot about horror movies, but there were just a lot of other things that obviously needed to be brought up. So there was a lot of questioning over the last three years of working on this as to whether I was confident to make it, and I did the best that I could.
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[Image Credit: Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) in Piers Haggard's Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), courtesy of Severin Films.]