Writer and film programmer Kier-La Janisse He has devoted much of his life to exploring the history and culture of horror from a critical and academic perspective. Janisse is an author House of Psychotic Women: an autobiographical topography of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films, published and edited numerous works of horror nonfiction anthology, founded the Miskatonic Institute for Horror Studies, and more in his impressive career thus far. In her first feature film, writer-director Janisse dives deep into the world of popular horror, presenting a dizzyingly comprehensive documentary that tackles the history of the subgenre with a broad critical perspective.
Woods begins your deep dive with an overview of the Unholy Trilogy of Popular Terror; Michael reeves The Witch Hunter GeneralBy Piers Haggard Blood on Satan’s clawand Robin Hardy The wicker man. The initial heyday of popular horror makes for a perfect starting point. This trilogy essentially defined popular horror as it is known today and creates an accessible gateway before examining the subgenre’s winding path before and after. From there, Janisse breaks this lengthy topic into organized chapters, covering her explosion of British horror, her pagan and witchcraft roots, and a detailed look at popular horror from around the world.
At just over three hours in length, this densely packed documentary is not for those with a passing interest and no enthusiasm for the genre. Janisse, which runs like a Miskatonic lecture, brings together more than fifty talking heads to examine what popular horror is and how it evolved. While some of those talking heads are notable filmmakers, like Robert Eggers and Alice Lowe, the vast majority are critics and scholars of the subject. Outstanding authors such as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas or distinguished film historians such as Abraham Castillo Flores break down the subgenre worldwide. This documentary does not present the standard crop of gender interviewees; Janisse intentionally sought out the world’s most knowledgeable experts.
The documentary touches on over 200 films, many of them dark or profound, to investigate how history has influenced this subgenre, what exactly defines popular horror, and how we engage with our respective cultural stories to find meaning and spirituality in our environment. As the filmmaker herself observes in the documentary, many believe that popular horror has its roots in the past. But the recurring themes in popular horror show that it’s more about the friction between past and present. The fear of change is a central avenue.
In addition to selected clips from featured films, Janisse uses paper collage sequences and animations to provide deeper visual interest. Poetry readings and mysterious folk melodies also elevate the style of the documentary. It is not only the organization of the material that demonstrates the care put into this function, but also its artistic approach.
Janisse’s feature film debut is a remarkable endeavor that is on par with the thoughtful analysis she has put into horror through other mediums. It is a wide-ranging investigation in a subgenre that offers information for even the most studied academic genre, mainly due to its scope and scale. That scope means that it may be too much to take in at once; breaking down this more than three hour thorough examination might be better into smaller chunks for better absorption. Popular horror has exploded over the last decade and it only seems to be growing, and Janisse was enraged with a thoughtful and intelligent inspection of the definition of popular horror. It’s the kind of daunting deep dive that might not appeal to the casual movie fan or those just not interested in this sub-genre. However, for the movie buff or horror fanatic, Woods is an extensive crash course that will teach you much more than you bargained for about popular horror.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror) made its world premiere at SXSW and will be released sometime in 2021 by Severin Films.