With 20 years of programming experience, Kier-La Janisse knows how to put together a movie marathon. Speaking with The A.V. Club from her hotel room in Sitges, Spain, where her documentary Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched screened earlier this month, Janisse laughs remembering a fundraiser called “Torture Garden” she used to run in Vancouver, B.C.
“It was free to get in, but you had to pay to get out,” she says, describing how she would front-load the event with the most grating, shocking videos she could find, because the price for attending the marathon would go down with every hour endured. Still, it was a balance: “You want to drive people out so you can make more money, but you can’t make the whole thing shit or else they won’t come back the next year,” she says.
But worry not, readers. We haven’t asked Janisse to put together 24 hours of films to shatter your mind. Instead, we’re talking about folk horror, a subgenre that’s gained traction in recent years and is brought into sharp relief in Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched. In short, a folk horror film is usually set in a rural place, deals with fairy tales and folklore, and uses superstition, pagan rituals, and witchcraft as stand-ins for the conflict between pre-modern and modern ways of life.
The archetypical example of folk horror is The Wicker Man, but Janisse’s documentary expands the label beyond the British films most associate with it. “When you’re looking at something like folk horror, there are a million subsections, different styles, and different ways that they intersect with other genres,” Janisse says. “Some aspects are close to Southern Gothic, and others are close to ethnographic documentary. There are witch-hunting narratives, and pagan community narratives—there are all kinds of them!”
Asked if she agrees with the consensus that folk horror—a genre that thrived in the 1970s—has experienced a revival in the 2010s, Janisse cites Ben Wheatley’s films Kill List (2011) and A Field In England (2013) as key instigators of this new wave. “Those two movies together were hugely influential because they’re low budget films,” she says. “They were made with small crews, but they were able to do all this fantastical stuff.”
Also key are the cyclical nature of nostalgia— “There are a few reasons why the revival happened, but one of the more pragmatic ones is that people who remember these films from the ’70s are now making their own films,” Janisse says—and of history. Janisse adds:
There’s also the state of the world, and how similar it is to the things that were happening in the ’70s. There’s a general pessimism imbuing everything, and I would say that’s a big part of why, in the last few years especially, people have become more interested in folk practices, and folk culture… There’s been a crisis where people have said, “I’m not religious, but I need something right now because the what what is happening around me is not enough. I need some extra support.” So I feel like people are trying to connect more with the core idea of nature and the planet and small communities—all things that we see in folk horror.
There’s an exciting element of discovery in Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched, as well as Severin Films’ upcoming folk horror boxed set All The Haunts Be Ours, which Janisse helped produce. For our purposes, that means that some of the films discussed below are not currently available on streaming. We’ve included YouTube embeds of those films wherever possible, to help make this marathon a reality for readers who wish to attempt it between the release of Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched on November 5 and All The Haunts Be Ours on December 7.
The A.V. Club: This one ties in to something you were talking about: British directors who remember this stuff from their childhood.
Kier-La Janisse: This is the 1968 Jonathan Miller version—there was a remake made much later with John Hurt. It’s based on a story by M.R. James, and was part of the Omnibus series on the BBC, which were basically what we would call TV movies.
Whistle And I’ll Come To You is about an uptight British academic who goes to this seaside village where the cemetery has fallen into the sea looking for ruins. There, he finds this old whistle jutting out of the cliffside from what would have been a grave. And inscribed on the whistle, it says, “Who is this? Who is coming?”—which I named one of the chapters in my film. He blows it, and then he’s beset by various phantoms. And these things completely terrify him, because he doesn’t believe in ghosts or spirits, he’s purely a man of practicality and science.
The way that they did it—if you were to describe it to someone and say, “bedsheets are used to scare someone,” they’d think, “how can that be scary?” But it’s it is. It’s terrifying. The way they animated the phantoms in the film, you’d think it would never work. Why does this work so well? But together with the sound design—the sound design is incredible…
AVC: Sound design is important for horror.
KLJ: It’s so important. This one has very droning, deep sounds and guttural sounds. It’s amazing.
It’s not officially part of the A Ghost Story For Christmas series, although it has been unofficially adopted into it. If you buy the BBC’s Blu-rays of the series, Whistle And I’ll Come To You will always be included.
AVC: I love that the British do ghost stories for Christmas.
KLJ: I actually started doing it! I spent a big chunk of time in the U.K., and when I discovered that it was a tradition to read ghost stories on Christmas Eve, I started making people do it with me. Wherever I happen to be for Christmas, I always make everybody turn off all the lights and light candles and read a ghost story.
KLJ: Of the witch-hunting movies, which is a key type of folk horror, this is my personal favorite. Witchhammer is similar to [1968 Vincent Price movie] Witchfinder General or [1970 German film] Mark Of The Devil, where a “witchfinder” is going around and collecting money to rid different villages of their suspected witches. This one is based on a true story that happened in the Czech Republic, or what is now the Czech Republic.
At the beginning of the movie, we see the inquisitor before he decides to designate himself the the witch hunter. He has his assistant, and they just sort of fashion these personalities for themselves. They’re like, “This is going to be our scheme: We’re going to travel around, and we’re going to be put up in all the fancy palaces. We’re going to eat really well.”
AVC: Very similar to Witchfinder General, then.
KLJ: Aesthetically, they’re also similar in the sense that they’re both very violent. But Witchhammer has more of an eastern European flair to it. It’s a really beautiful movie to look at, and it just shows how—I did a book about the Satanic Panic, and it’s a lot of that same type of stuff where you get these people who are self-designated experts. And because there’s nobody else who’s an expert in that thing, there’s nobody to debunk their claims. And so everybody just kind of accepts it.
The whole system has to buy into it for it to work. You can’t just go into a town and tell everybody, “I’m going to burn 39 of your citizens.” So you have all the rich people, you’ve got the church, they buy in and they give the witch hunter the resources to do what he wants to do—until inevitably, of course, it turns on them. Everybody thinks it can’t happen to them. But it does.
KLJ: This short film was made by director Larry Yust, who later made the 1974 elder-horror film Homebodies. It was made for Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1969, and remains the classic adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s controversial proto-folk horror tale. We wanted it for our folk-horror set and couldn’t get the rights, but there are 16mm prints out there, and it is on YouTube. It’s essential.
AVC: A lot of people think about British movies when they think folk horror. But your documentary looks at it on a global scale.
KLJ: I’m happy that people seem to be okay with that. I sort of expected there to be pushback, but thankfully, people seemed to like how broad it was.
I wanted to have a ghost cat movie [in this marathon]. And there are more obscure ghost cat movies I could have picked. But Kuroneko is the classic ghost cat movie, and it’s the most artful. A lot of the other ones are very entertaining and fun, but the ghost cat is a little silly or there’s overwrought hammy acting. But Kuroneko is like a weird, surreal dream. It’s got that ethereal quality to it that makes you feel the way the characters do when they encounter the ghosts.
The geography is unsettled: The house is there, now the house is not there. It’s like there are these two parallel worlds, the ghost world and the everyday world, that are sitting on top of each other and are only visible at certain times. That ties in with the idea of psychogeography, and more than one realm coexisting and overlapping. These are the places where ghosts can get in.
Kuroneko is a rape-revenge film, it’s a ghost cat film, it’s a folk horror film. It’s all of these things, but it is also absolutely what you would traditionally call an art film. It’s gorgeously constructed. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t completely fall in love with Kuroneko.
KLJ: A lot of people find it to be a strange inclusion [in folk horror], but for me, I thought right away that it was [folk horror], because of the main character, who is an anthropologist. He’s dealing with a conflict of belief systems, which is something that is central to a lot of folk horror films. There’s the church, and there are these older memories that are in him and that are part of this blood curse. But it’s very ambiguous.
Even people I interviewed had different takes on it. Sam Waymon, who was in the film and who did the music for the film, is a Christian. He is very active in his church. Whereas Myesha Lester, the scholar that talks about it, talks about it as a very anti-church film. I do think that it is a folk horror film: It deals with folk customs, practices, and beliefs, and there’s this clash between the dominant religion and an older religion.
I think that’s what you get when you have filmmakers who are from different ethnicities and different races. You get storytelling that doesn’t necessarily align with how you think storytelling works. Different people have different perspectives, and they tell stories in different ways. And so folk horror made by people who are coming from different cultures is not necessarily going to look like British folk horror. They’re going to look like their own thing.
AVC: Something that keeps coming up is the ethnographic aspect of folk horror, in the sense that it’s recording these old beliefs and rituals.
KLJ: The Savage Hunt Of King Stakh is about an ethnographer! So, in the film, he’s on his way to Belarus and he gets caught in the rain and has to stay the night in a creepy old castle where there’s a countess who’s very sickly. Her family’s been cursed for centuries, because someone along the line betrayed King Stakh, who was the king centuries earlier. Now, he rides through the sky as the leader of the wild hunt. So that’s absorbed into this story as well.
Whoever is leading the wild hunt depends on where the story comes from—often it’s Odin or Wodan, but in this story, it’s King Stakh. The idea is that you don’t want to be caught outside during the wild hunt, and this woman is terrorized thinking that the wild hunt is going to get her. And so this guy shows up and says, “I’m going around collecting legends.” And she’s horrified by this idea. She wishes all the legends would go away. And then, of course, all the stories she believes in—they’re all true.
It’s a great movie, because it’s got everything. It’s got an old dark house. It’s got kind of a Scooby-Doo ending. It’s Belarusian gothic, it’s kids’ horror. And it’s got this direct engagement with the legends and folklore of the region, which are manifested visually [in the film]. And it’s got the type of “crazy woman in the house” you associate with an Andrzej Żuławski film or something like that.
I don’t know how widely this film is known outside of the Soviet Union. We tried to get it for the box set and we just couldn’t find the rights holder for it. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the regional film departments in the different Soviet states collapsed. There has been a lot of confusion about where those rights went.
AVC: This one was new to me.
KLJ: It was new to me too, before I made the documentary.
AVC: Did you discover a lot of stuff like that when you were making the film?
KLJ: There are about 20 films that are in the documentary that I had not heard of before. I got to do a lot of movie watching while I was making it, which was fun.
KLJ: When I was growing up, The Wicker Man was my favorite folk horror film. It was a huge influence on me in many ways, but its place in my heart has been usurped by A Field In England.
AVC: That’s high praise.
KLJ: Every time I watch it, I’m like, “This is a perfect film.” I’ve never seen a black-and-white film that’s so psychedelic. But I also just love the style of the film, and the way that they’re making a very low-budget battle movie. It’s a period movie, and they didn’t have a lot of money.
I love the performances. Ben Wheatley often has comedy actors doing serious drama, and he gets such amazing performances out of people. The characters are competing alchemists, which are not character types that show up in movies very often!
They were using kids’ toy cameras and homemade lenses that they just made out of plastic! On the Blu-ray, there are all these camera tests that they did with their toy cameras, and it’s incredible. It’s this beautiful footage of close ups on the grass and the insects and the sun flares and everything. It’s just such a gorgeous film.
KLJ: Il Demonio is an Italian film from 1963, about a woman whose name is Purificata. She’s played by Daliah Lavi, this incredibly beautiful actress who was the lead in Mario Bava’s film The Whip And The Body. Purificata is a woman who is very free-spirited and has a lot of unrestrained sexual energy, and she has a relationship with one of the local farmers in her village. Her village is in southern Italy, and it’s clearly Catholic, but it has all these remnants of old superstitions.
So Purificata gets rejected by this guy, right? He’s going to get married and is marrying, of course, some boring woman because it’s more proper. Purificata freaks out, and the community turns against her because they interpret her behavior as demonic possession. And they react accordingly.
So it’s about the community taking the Christian idea of exorcism and mixing it with the old ways. They’ve got all their bases covered, basically. When we look at possession movies—which are not necessarily folk horror movies—the possessed person’s body becomes a site for other people to project onto. Here, a lot of corruption comes out in the way people treat Purificata.
It’s a really beautiful film, and it’s also got this real sense of the folk practices of the village, which is something I privilege in the documentary. I’ve tried to privilege films where you actually see depictions of various practices and rituals.
AVC: This one brings in the heavy-metal side of this whole aesthetic.
KLJ: This is where you get the black metal typefaces and stuff like that. It’s very Nordic—well, not Nordic, exactly. It’s Austrian. But it’s it’s got that alpine setting.
Hagazussa is definitely one of the best films of the folk revival period. It’s about a woman who lives alone with her mother, outside a village where, similar to Il Demonio, they have Christian customs, but there are a lot of older customs that are still part of their celebrations. They believe in this figure called Frau Perchta, and say, “Look out for Frau Perchta in the woods. Don’t let Frau Perchta find you.”
Anyway, the mother ends up getting an illness that comes on the heels of her having a mysterious encounter in the woods, presumably with Frau Perchta. Something happens to her, and she goes back to the cabin and becomes very sick physically, but also becomes predatory towards her daughter as well. So her daughter is dealing with practically being molested by this woman whose flesh is rotting off of her. But she doesn’t have a support system. Her mother is an outcast, so she is an outcast by association.
So eventually, the mother dies, and so the girl is living in this house in complete isolation. Then a woman from the village decides to mess with her, and pretends to be her friend. It’s almost a Carrie type of thing, where she loses it and becomes the threat they’ve been accusing her and her mother of being all this time.
As with A Field In England, you get some really psychedelic sequences [in this film]. Part of what I like about it, too, is that it could equally fit in the folk horror documentary and in my book House Of Psychotic Women.
AVC: Yeah, totally.
KLJ: That’s a sweet spot for me. A woman going crazy in isolation.
KLJ: Sam Weiss’ 1972 animated short is probably my favorite adaptation of the [Washington Irving] tale. It’s narrated by John Carradine, and was released as a classroom film, part of a series of adaptations of classic American folk tales. We have a beautiful transfer of it in our box set thanks to AV Geeks.
AVC: The inclusion of Appalachia is another interesting thing in the documentary.
KLJ: As things have changed around them, people in Appalachia have fought to keep their folk customs. It’s part of their identity. There was contact between [Scotch-Irish settlers] and indigenous people and freed slaves there, which is where you get Appalachian folk magic. It’s such a rich region for that type of thing.
I’m just so glad I put Jug Face in the film, because it was an outlier. People didn’t look at American stuff as being part of folk horror when the revival was starting, and Jug Face was quite early in that cycle. It’s such a great environment, and such a rich mythology that [director Chad Kinkle] created for this movie. I love the ritual around creating the jug face and what it means if your face is on one. The standard idea would be that some outsider would come into that environment and tell them that they’re worshiping a hole in the ground, but here the descent is coming from within the community itself.
This a really important film for American folk horror, because it felt like it came out of nowhere, and there still isn’t really anything that matches it. There are other American films set in backwoods places, but they don’t have the level of nuance that’s in this film. That’s partially because the director’s from that region, so there is clearly a respect for the people. He’s not demonizing them as toothless backwoods hicks.
KLJ: This is one of my favorites, too. People have called Eye Of The Devil a proto-Wicker Man because it’s dealing with the idea of a lord who has to come back to his family’s castle because the crops are failing. He needs to take his his role as the lord of this ancient family and do some rituals and ceremonies to get the crops flourishing again. So it’s a similar backdrop to The Wicker Man, as well as The Lottery.
The cast is bonkers: It’s got David Niven, Deborah Kerr, David Hemmings, Sharon Tate, Donald Pleasance…
AVC: It really is. It’s so good.
KLJ: It’s billed as Sharon Tate’s first movie—although she actually had two movies that both made that claim. Eye Of The Devil was shelved, though, so it didn’t come out right away.
Deborah Kerr plays David Niven’s wife, and he tells her, “I need to go back home to take care of some business.” He goes alone, and she follows him. She asks him, “What are these strange things they’re doing in the attic?” And he’s like, “It’s not for you to know. It’s a secret.”
Sharon Tate and David Hemmings play these characters who are supposed to be brother and sister, and there are incestuous overtones there. You don’t really know what their role is in the castle, but they’re definitely part of these ceremonies. Sharon Tate in particular takes great delight in tormenting Deborah Kerr once she shows up and she’s running around the castle trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s a great movie.
KLJ: November is based on a famous Estonian novel called Rehepapp Ehk November, which everyone there seems to know. And that book is based on Estonian folklore. One of the things that’s unique to Estonian folklore is this creature called the kratt. It’s created when a person makes a deal with the devil, and it’s a servant made out of random shit around your farm.
AVC: Like a golem?
KLJ: Kind of, although less articulated. When you see it in the film, it’s made of a scythe and a wheel and various things that are lying around in the yard. And they just join up and become a living creature. They can be made out of all kinds of different things. People would use them to help out around the farm—they need an extra pair of hands, so they get a kratt.
It’s similar to the Icelandic story of the tilberi, which was a creature that a woman would typically create during times of starvation or hardship. She would take a rib from a recently buried skeleton and combine it with various things, and tie them up into a satchel that she wore around her heart. She then had to drink communion wine outside of the normal communion ceremony. She would do all this, and it would make a tilberi, a creature that creates butter by going around and sucking milk out of all your neighbors’ cows.
KLJ: Yeah, it steals the milk and vomits butter. It’s already been churned inside its body. It was a delicacy at the time!
But yeah, this idea of creating a little creature that can go out and do things for you—the kratt is one of these types of creatures. In November, there’s a girl who lives on a farm, and she appeals to the spirits to help her win the heart of this boy that she likes who doesn’t notice her. There are so many depictions of weird rituals and ceremonies and all kinds of things in this film, as well as the idea of storytelling and folktales.
KLJ: The Company Of Wolves is an old comfort movie for me. It’s probably the most mainstream thing on my list, but it’s such an undeniably stunning film. It’s a really lush looking: the reds are so vibrant, and the colors of the sky and the textures of the sky are amazing.
A lot of the film has to do with people telling stories. There is a celebration of the act of storytelling, of people who take on the role of being storytellers, and of the power that it gives you to be a storyteller. It’s also a coming of age story, about a young woman who’s around 13 or 14 and is coming into her sexual awakening.
It’s based on Angela Carter’s [book of revisionist fairy tales] The Bloody Chamber, which have all been brought in to some degree in this film. The classic little Red Riding Hood story is your main narrative, and at the very end, the last story that [the protagonist] tells is for the wolf. She sits next to him and tells him a story, which is so beautiful.