Tag Archives: horror documentary

Into the Woods

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

by Hope Madden

Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In my case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.

Dividing her topic into chapters, Janisse portions out information theme by theme. And while this essay-style documentation is driven by expert commentary, the filmmaker surrounds the scholarly material with beguiling imagery.

Every chapter has its own look and feel, each one opening with an appropriately bewitching bit of rhyme. Then it leads you through a clearly articulated and fairly comprehensive examination of certain moments in folk horror. Janisse opens on the big three, The Unholy Trinity–Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man—as a way to ease us into the conversation by pinning major themes on well-known films.

She goes on to explore TV and written tales tangentially, though her focus is always primarily on film, taking us from The Wicker Man through Midsommar. In between, she introduces dozens of underseen films and traces not only the history of folk horror but the societal anxieties that these films represent.

And while many may think mainly of British films of the 1960s and 70s for this category, Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.

Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. Border! White Reindeer! Onibaba! Viy! Prevenge!

Bonus: You can find a gorgeous array of folk horror streaming on Shudder this month, including The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.

There are so many, you can’t blame even a 3-hour film for leaving some out. Here are a few masterpieces glimpsed but not discussed and well worth your time:

And even then, there are some favorites not discussed at all that you might want to check out:

How can three hours of folk horror discussion not be enough? It’s a question that points to what may be the greatest strength of Janisse’s film. Like any truly strong documentary, her film not only covers its topic comprehensively, it inspires you to dig deeper on your own time.

Devil In the Details

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

by George Wolf

Most of the time, limiting a documentary to only one point of view is not a winning strategy. You want balance, with a scope wide enough to deliver more than just an agenda-laden screed.

Leap of Faith doesn’t worry about all that. If your aim is to take a deep dive into the filming of The Exorcist, and director William Friedkin agrees to a lengthy interview, well, that’s that.

Sure, you could probably find someone to argue Friedkin didn’t craft one of the greatest horror films in history, but do we really need to give idiots any more screen time this year?

In just the last three years, director Alexandre O. Phillippe has deconstructed horror classics Alien (Memory: The Origins of Alien) and Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) to fascinating effect. Leap of Faith makes it a trifecta of terror, thanks to a film icon who also proves himself an endlessly engaging storyteller in front of the camera.

If it’s true every interview needs at least one good story to be worth the time, Phillippe’s visit with Friedkin is a pound for pound champ. The stories here – from Jason Miller taking the Father Karras role away from Stacy Keach to Friedkin’s battle with legendary composer Bernard Herrman over the score – keep you hanging on every word.

Strangely, though, the conversation never does get around to Linda Blair at all – not her casting, her performance, or the complexities of directing a teenage actress in such extreme subject matter. Even with all the compelling content here, it’s a noticeable omission.

But more than an indispensable guide through the making of a classic, Leap of Faith shines a wonderfully illuminating light on Friedkin’s creative process. Yes, Billy clearly likes him some Billy, but at 85 years old now, it’s hard to blame him.

Whether or not Phillippe knew what he was getting when first he sat down with Friedkin, the game plan no doubt materialized pretty quickly. Keep him talking, trim the fat, and then splice in the appropriate clips at the perfect time.

Leap of Faith might be a one man show, but when the show is The Exorcist and the man is William Friedkin, it feels like enough.

Man of Your Dreams

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

by Hope Madden

“It was intended to play as homophobic rather than homoerotic.”

So says David Chaskin, writer of 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge—a film many consider to be the gayest horror movie ever made. Chaskin has long shared the belief that it was the casting of Mark Patton in the lead role, the “final boy,” that pushed the envelope from homophobic to homoerotic.

Chaskin is right.

Thank God for casting.

The mid-Eighties hardly needed another homophobic movie, or another AIDS-terrified horror flick. Did it need the story of an adolescent boy whose homosexual nature emerges as some monstrous id, only to be cured by the love of a good woman? No, but if you just don’t watch the last ten minutes of the film, Nightmare 2 is a bizarre and glorious B-movie coming out party.

Again, thanks to Mark Patton.

Patton is the center of the Shudder documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. He also produces, which means he gives the footage his OK, leading to a film that comes off as self-congratulatory and self-indulgent more often than it should. But there is no denying Patton’s life has been fascinating.

Patton’s a charming, charismatic vehicle for the doc and the insight he offers into burgeoning stardom, closeted Hollywood and the Eighties is riveting. He’d lived quite a life before his first feature lead likely ended his career—but what he survived outside Elm Street was certainly tougher.

So much so that Patton’s particular anxiety about how this film affected him and his career sometimes feels misplaced. But watching how his perception of the “gay controversy” has evolved and what that evolution has allowed him to do within the gay community is delightful.

Of course, equally fascinating for horror fans is the debate as to who did and did not realize how profoundly gay Nightmare 2 was. Patton’s co-stars—Robert Englund (Freddy himself) comes off especially well—each add to the conversation in entertaining ways, though director Jack Sholder should maybe stop talking.

First time filmmakers Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen seem unsure of their real aim: to tell Mark’s story, to help Mark find closure, to deconstruct the film’s subtext, to explore its lasting meaning for the LGBTQ community. Because of their meandering focus, Scream, Queen feels longer than it needs to be.

Lucky for the filmmakers, every one of those topics makes for an intriguing investigation, and watching Patton triumphantly recreate his iconic (and likely career-ending) dance scene is sheer joy.