“Is the Real Horror the ‘Old Ways’ Or the Civilization That We Built?: Kier-La Janisse on Her SXSW Doc, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched
What began as a BTS feature for a home video release of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a 1971 cult favorite about Satanic possession in a 17th century English village, premiered this week at the South by Southwest film festival as a three-hour opus on the allure and dread of folk-horror.
“I started working on a half-hour bonus feature for Severin [Films] and it just kept getting really big,” says Kier-La Janisse, whose directorial debut Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched adds yet another hyphen to her endeavors as a film historian-memorist (The House of Psychotic Women), editor, curator and educator (she founded the multi-branched Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in 2010). Encouraged by Severin chief David Gregory, Janisse kept going, and going, and going as her supplement turned into a sprawling three-hour feature, expanding from a single film to ultimately encompass some 240 releases. The Wicker Man and Midsommar are just the tip of the iceberg that includes everything from children’s TV shows to an entire body of obscure Eastern European horror – all of it rich with cultural and social revelations teased out by a small army of scholars, filmmakers and enthusiasts. Plus original collages by Janisse’s fellow Winnipeggian, Guy Maddin.
“It became a huge learning experience for me because I had never done anything on this level before,” says Janisse, speaking recently over Zoom from her current residence on an island off the Western coast of her native Canada. She talked with Filmmaker about her own profound attraction to the genre, why it matters so much in our current pandemic situation, and how such a jam-packed project achieved its smooth visual flow.
Filmmaker: What was the first film that got you into folk-horror?
Kier-La Janisse: I was a huge Wicker Man fan. I saw The Wicker Man as a teenager at some point. I’m sure I saw other things, like TV movies or episodes of TV shows that would count as folk-horror, but the thing that really made that first impression on me was The Wicker Man. I went by myself on this pilgrimage to go visit the town where the harbor scenes are filmed, up in the north of Scotland. I showed up in this town that looked exactly the same as it is in The Wicker Man, with all the palm trees and everything. I thought the palm trees were fake but there really are palm trees there because of the gulf stream or whatever …
Filmmaker: Or the human sacrifices …
Janisse: I had been told that the harbormaster’s boat from the movie, which is this red and blue little boat with eyeballs on the front of it, was still there in that town in a shed in the woods. I went to this bar, and it was like American Werewolf in London, where you walk in and everyone stops to look at you. The bartender came up to me and asked me if I was a Wicker Man fan or a Hamish Macbeth fan, because apparently Hamish Macbeth [a Scottish television mystery series] was also filmed in that town. I was like “Wicker Man.” I was told to ask for a fisherman named Calum Mackenzie, who knew where this boat was. He started giving me these very convoluted directions of how to go around the water … and I was just like, huh? Some guy in a motorcycle comes by with a black helmet on and Calum Mackenzie says, “Hey, take this girl to the castle.” So I just get on the back of his motorcycle and I never saw their face and they did not say anything to me the whole time. They drove me around the lake to the castle and dropped me off and left. I found this shed in the woods and in the shed were four little rowboats and one of them was the harbormaster’s boat from The Wicker Man. So I just sat in it and ate my sandwich.
Filmmaker: The timing is opportune for a project like this, given the resurgence of folk-horror with films like Midsommar and The Witch. What do you think is driving this and what might it mean?
Janisse: When I started making the movie in the middle of 2018 was when folk-horror started to become a thing again in North America. It had already been a thing for a while in the UK. … If we had the movie come out last year it would’ve felt much more timely. I feel like by September or October of this year things can completely change again and maybe we can get out of this dark tunnel we’ve been in! Some of the things people talk about in the epilogue about why it’s become big – and COVID has exacerbated it more, where people are moving to the country. I live in the middle of nowhere — I live on an island — and a lot of people I know are leaving the cities and moving out into the country. There’s just this real parallel between things that were happening in the early ‘70s and the mid-’70s when folk-horror was kind of first gaining steam. It wasn’t called folk-horror then. That was a retroactive term. A lot of that just mirrors what’s happening now, this real sense of disillusionment and disappointment and incredible anxiety. People were already feeling like that from Trump, and Trump was and is a thing that goes so far beyond the U.S. People all over the world have been anxious about Trump and what it symbolizes and seeing the U.S. descend into total chaos – it resonates so much with these events that were happening in the mid-’70s, when there was this real breakdown in the government and environmental catastrophes. People were trying to find ways to reconnect with the environment — new age religions, and even average people dabbling in herbalism. These are all things that are happening again now. There is a visibility to occult practices, even on a little homemaker level — the things you can do around your house with candles or certain herbs that will help you with your anxiety. All of this stuff is the same stuff that people were getting into in the ‘70s, and being like “I need something. I’m looking outside of where I would normally go for help.” It was happening to me when I first started working on the film. I went through a period that I’m just beginning to come out of, a period of two years where I would have joined a cult. I had something quite traumatic happen. I wanted to not make any decisions and have someone take care of me. Cults are these things that are demonized in film and in life, but there’s also a reason why people are drawn to cults. It’s that comfort and security that they represent for people, especially if people are feeling very, very lost. It’s like having some sense of community that can envelop you. Of course, there are people who know that and can manipulate that. All the meaning has broken down and we start looking beyond what has been our everyday experience and trying to just reconnect with older traditions that we feel might help support us. But then it’s interesting in a horror context because everything is kind of a worst-case scenario. Everything’s going to be tinged with a sense of anxiety and questioning what is the real horror. Is the real horror the “old ways” or is the real horror the civilization that we built?
Filmmaker: That reflection of current events, whether in a direct or allegorical manner, is really notable when the documentary gets into contemporary Latin American films.
Janisse: Once I started getting into it and realized how heavy many of the ideas were, how many of the ideas were about colonialism and race and politics, I started to worry that I was not competent to make this movie. I know a lot about horror movies but maybe I’m not the best person to make this because I don’t come from a political activist background. That was something I worried about a lot making it.
Filmmaker: Yeah, thinking about the revenge-of-the-repressed themes in films like Demon or La Llorona.
Janisse: A lot of that international section, my editor Winnie [Cheung] was really helpful in how we should structure that section and pushing to organize it thematically. Originally, I had us just going from country to country. And she was like, “We’ll never get through it.” We have to condense, condense, condense. And the only way to do that is to look at these cross-narratives, where you’re at movies from completely different cultures. We’re looking at how they deal with the same issues, but from their own region.
Filmmaker: You mention Winnie and the editing. One thing that impressed me the most was how well it all flows. The film clips never stop coming but it keeps moving. A lot of these movies about movies really do look like expanded BTS segments without the budget or polish.
Janisse: One, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and cut. I would make a paper edit and Winnie would cut things, and it would become immediately obvious if something was not working. The order of things, all of that stuff was scripted. But the pacing and the polish, the real cinematic qualities and the beauty of it, comes from the editors Winnie and Ben [Shearn]. When I was making my rough cut of it, it was telling the same story but it was just like information-information-information. Just like crammed together. The story being told is the same, once I got the editors to cut it, but it moves completely differently.
It was kind of weird, because one of the first movies I showed her, and also showed Ben, was Double Take, the Johan Grimonprez movie. It’s about Alfred Hitchcock meeting his double on the set of The Birds. It’s a weird hybrid movie that’s like a video essay mixed with a mockumentary. It’s this amazing film. There were certain moments in that film I pulled out, and I was like “This!” This feeling. This feeling that it has right here. That’s how I want my movie to feel. I felt like Winnie really got it. And she didn’t come from a horror background. There’s a lot of horror-fan editors I could have got, who would have been into using all the posters and the publicity stills, and I feel like it would have been edited in a completely different way that would have been much more focused on the collector mindset. She was coming from this much more ethereal place, which was what I wanted. I wanted it to feel dreamier.
Filmmaker: It’s compelling to have that effect and the sheer volume of expert witnesses beyond what you’d normally get in a film like this. I also didn’t realize how many books there were about folk-horror. Everyone’s got a thick treatise.
Janisse: And there’s still other experts I don’t have in it because there were too many men. There were too many white British men. Even though there are more brilliant white British men I could’ve got to be in it, at a certain point I had to look elsewhere for my interviewees. But there is so much writing.
Filmmaker: How did you decide who to include?
Janisse: Originally I was going after more directors, but unless they really could talk about the ideas and themes of folk-horror in general it was more useful to have scholars. Some directors could really only talk about stuff that would count more as production history. The film was not getting into the production histories of the movies, so a lot of those stories would get cut out. After my first round of interviews, I shifted and was going after scholars who had written about certain things. Maybe they hadn’t written a book about folk-horror but maybe they’d written about Southern Gothic. Maisha Wester, who’s talking about Ganja and Hess and The Serpent and the Rainbow and The Believers, she has written a lot about Southern Gothic and a lot about race in relation to Southern Gothic and she’s also written a lot about hoodoo and voodoo. [It was] finding someone who was an expert in all those things but also knew the films. They were not just coming from a cultural/sociological/historical standpoint but also were familiar with these horror films that were utilizing those ideas or interpreting those cultures.
Filmmaker: It feels like that thoughtful focus extends to every aspect of the doc. The music was especially striking. How did that element come together?
Janisse: Jim Williams did the music. Some of the score is just from A Field in England [Ben Wheatley’s lysergic midnighter of 2013). He scored that also, so he was able to repurpose some of those sounds. We had used it in our temp music. It’s a three-hour movie and we didn’t have much of a budget, so asking someone to do an original score for a three-hour movie for no money is a big ask.
Filmmaker: Was there a certain thing you wanted the music to evoke?
Janisse: The first tracks he gave us, I gave him a couple songs I liked. One was a Sprirogyra song [note: the British folk-prog band not the smooth-jazz supergroup], which I was trying to get rights to and BMG denied me. I really liked the mood. I also liked Brooks Poston and these guys from the Manson Family. They split off and became a folk singing duo. I love Manson Family music because it has this warped sound to it. It’s just off. Or the instruments are out of tune.