Filmmaker Kier-La Janisse lays out the history of folk horror


By Steve Newton

Back in 2005 I interviewed Kier-La Janisse at Black Dog Video, the Vancouver specialty-video shop she’d worked at for several years. At the time Janisse was curating her seventh and final installment of the CineMuerte Film Festival, which took place at the Pacific Cinématheque (now just called the Cinematheque).

CineMuerte was known for showcasing cutting-edge, violent, disturbing, and often controversial genre films, but Janisse was never fazed by any outrage her selections may have caused.

“Sometimes I know that there are movies that are gonna upset people,” she explained at the time, “but I don’t get scared off from programming them.”

That fearless approach to film has served Janisse well over the years, with a career that has seen her work as a programmer for the famed Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, become an acclaimed author for her 2012 film criticism/memoir hybrid House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, and now—with the release of the three-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror—an award-winning director as well. The film, currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Shudder, took the audience award for best documentary at the Fantasia Film Festival.

On the line from her current home on Pender Island—”I’ve been here since COVID started, hiding out.”—Janisse points to her work on the CineMuerte Film Festival as crucial to getting her where she is today.

“CineMuerte is kind of how everything started for me,” she says. “It’s how I got my first writing gig, for Fangoria, and it’s how I eventually got a job in Austin, being a programmer there. If I hadn’t done CineMuerte nobody in my field would have known that I existed, so that’s something I really look back on as an important period of my life. I also worked at Black Dog Video for years, and Black Dog was really instrumental in supporting the festival also. So it was a good time.”

The step to becoming a full-fledged film director came via Janisse’s work for Severin Films, which has been her “day job” since 2017. The company does restorations of classic genre film titles in lavish collectors’ editions, and one of her duties is overseeing bonus features for its Blurays.

When the company was going to reissue a “folk horror” movie called The Blood on Satan’s Claw on Bluray, she had proposed doing a little folk horror featurette, so people could understand the context of where the movie was coming from and where it fit in with similar films.

It was supposed to be a 30-minute piece that would take maybe three months to make.

“I got three or four months into it,” recalls Janisse, “when I was supposed to be handing it in, and my boss [Severin Films owner David Gregory] looked at the footage that I had, and we just realized that we had a much, much bigger project on our hands. So we scrapped the idea of it being a bonus feature and decided to proceed with it being a feature.”

By the time Janisse was done with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched it was a 192-minute epic featuring dozens of commentators—directors, screenwriters, film critics, authors, magazine editors, even occult bookstore owners—sharing their viewpoints on what folk horror actually is.

“Folk horror is generally described,” she says, “as films that are often set in a rural environment that deal with folk customs, practices, or beliefs, in some way. So sometimes this can be where it is dealing directly with folklore—like monsters of some sort, or folkloric evil or something.

“Sometimes it can be about a community’s fear of paganism or witchcraft. And sometimes it can be about the outsider that comes into that community that is afraid of the customs and beliefs of that community.”

As laid out in the documentary, three British-made films—1968’s Witchfinder General, the aforementioned The Blood on Satan’s Claw from ’71, and 1973’s The Wicker Man—are seen as genre-defining folk-horror works.

“Probably the first folk-horror movie I saw would have been something like The Dark Secret of Harvest Home on television,” says Janisse. “Or Children of the Corn. I didn’t see The Wicker Man till I was a teenager, and that was the first one where I started questioning whether there were other movies like this that I could look for that were dealing with pagan cultures and things like that. I don’t think at that age I would have connected it to something like Children of the Corn the way that I’m doing now with the film.

“But Wicker Man was a big one for me because I went to a bunch of the film locations and did the whole film-nerd pilgrimage thing, and I was completely fascinated with that film—as many people are. So that was kind of the foundational folk-horror film for me, even though it probably wasn’t the first one I ever saw.”

While Janisse believes that The Wicker Man might be her favourite folk-horror film of all time, she also admits that “it’s possibly been usurped” in that regard by British director Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, a 2013 black-and-white psychological horror film set during the mid-17th century English Civil War.

“Ben Wheatley would probably die if he heard me say I like it more than The Wicker Man,” notes Janisse, “and it may be just because I’ve seen The Wicker Man so many times now that it’s not as fresh to me. But A Field in England I think is just a completely magical film. I love it.”

Janisse has been finding magic in horror films—and showing it to others—for decades now. So what is it about horror in general that has made her want to devote such a huge chunk of her life to it?

“One of the first things I ever remember in my life is watching horror movies,” she explains. “And my parents liked horror movies. I mean they didn’t like them as much as I like them and they didn’t pursue them in any active way the way I have done, but they liked them enough that I would watch horror films with them.

“I had kind of a turbulent upbringing,” she adds, “but horror films were strangely this quality-time thing that I had with my parents, and so I always had very positive emotions associated with them.”

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