Bewitched at Midnight: Kier-La Janisse Premieres Folk Horror Doc at SXSW

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Writer, film programmer and horror scholar Kier-La Janisse at last steps behind the camera with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, after being the subject of a documentary (2004’s Celluloid Horror) and producing many others (including last year’s portmanteau horror doc Tales of the Uncanny, directed by her Severin Films colleague David Gregory).

The three-hour-plus film explores the folk horror phenomenon from its beginnings (Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man), through its many culturally specific manifestations, to the revival of the genre in recent years by the likes of Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and Ben Wheatley. 

Janisse is known for her excellent memoir ‘House Of Psychotic Women’ (here’s the Letterboxd list of films mentioned in the book); she also founded the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and is a regular on the midnight fest circuit. Her feature directorial debut premieres in the Midnight section at SXSW Online 2021. Aaron Yap chatted with Janisse ahead of the festival, and she shared her top ten folk horror movies with us. 

How did you begin your process for compiling a list of films for this documentary, and most importantly, did you use Letterboxd?

Kier-La Janisse: Oh yeah, I have a Letterboxd account. I started an account last year. I think all the movies I was watching in preparation for this folk-horror documentary are all logged on there at some point as I was watching them. 

It originally started as a Blu-ray extra for Blood on Satan’s Claw. I work for Severin Films as my day job, editing and producing bonus features, featurettes. We were re-releasing Blood on Satan’s Claw and I suggested doing a little survey piece on folk horror and what folk-horror was—a thirty minute piece on the disc. About six months later, I emerged with a two-hour rough cut. So my boss David Gregory said, “instead of cutting it down we just keep on going and think of more people you want to interview and more films you’d want to cover”. We started looking at American iterations of folk horror, and what it looked like in Asia and Australia, and how it differed from this very strong paradigm that we were given by British folk-horror.

When we look at British folk horror it has such a strong presence, aesthetic and vision. There’s so many books, movies, records and artworks. There’s a whole subculture around British folk horror that does not exist around folk horror from other countries. Which is why when I started to interview people it took them a while to think about whether movies from their country counted as folk horror. Everybody was like “Oh I thought it was like this British thing”. But then when people started thinking about it more they were like “Oh we do have this movie, and this movie, which could count as folk horror”. 

But it’s funny because one of the very last movies that was included was Mike de Leon’s film The Rites of May (which is also called Itim; it’s from the Philippines). That film, I discovered on Letterboxd. I had a movie marathon with a friend on January 2 this year and we watched a different Mike de Leon film, Batch ‘81, and as I was logging it on Letterboxd, his name came up with other movies, so I clicked on this other movie and read the description. I was just like “this sounds like a folk horror movie and I should watch this”, so that was the last movie I watched that just made it in under the wire. I was so happy I found it because it was the only movie from that region in the documentary. 

Did you watch any other documentaries in preparation for making this documentary?

There were definitely documentaries I would show my editors in terms of what I liked. My editor Winnie Cheung was really inspired by Adam Curtis’ documentaries but from my part one of the first movies I told her to watch was Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, a movie about what happens when Hitchcock meets his double on the set of The Birds. It’s got all these creepy moments where he takes archival footage that would otherwise be completely benign and has this Bernard Herrmann music on top of it. He does some really amazing, atmospheric and chilling things with the way he edited it. Even though that movie has nothing to do with folk horror, in terms of the mood I wanted, I sent my editors that film. 

There was also a movie called Bunker77, a surfing documentary [laughs] I sent my editors because it utilized a lot of Super 8 effects and lens flares. It had this great blending of images, of film, double exposures and stuff like that.

Also very late in the process, and it’s not mentioned in the film—one of the films that we talk about is Paul Wright’s For Those In Peril—but he made another film called Arcadia, which I didn’t know about until Halloween last year. Adam Scovell, who is one my interviewees, mentioned this film in a Halloween round-up of lesser-known British oddities you can see online. And this was a film Wright made exclusively using footage from the BFI archives. There’s no narration, no deliberate story. It’s very much like a feeling that you get. We were already deep into editing at this point, but I showed my editor and was like “I don’t feel like we have to make this movie now because this other movie is so much like what we’re trying to do with our footage”. [laughs] 

In the documentary, writer Alexandra Heller Nicholas mentions a couple of folk horror movies that may not necessarily be well-regarded but are of interest due to the resonant way in which they capture certain moments. Are there any images or moments from folk-horror movies that have stuck with you on a personal level?

One of the movies I was going to mention is Stigma by Lawrence Gordon Clark. It’s [an instalment of the BBC’s] A Ghost Story for Christmas. It’s the first one they made that was not based on a classic horror story, but one by a then-contemporary writer Clive Exton. Originally they were all based on M.R. James stories. I love that story because it has standing stones in it. There are standing stones and stone circles all over the UK, and a lot of folk horror involves standing stones because people don’t totally know what their purpose was, so it’s easy to project a lot of fantastical stories onto them.

They filmed Stigma in Avebury, a village that has a real stone circle. There’s this family that moves into this cottage and they unearth this stone from the ground and it unearths something because you’re not supposed to move it. This is one of the lessons of British folk horror. They move this standing stone and the wife of this family gets infected by something that’s come out of the ground. There’s this amazing sequence: she’s trying to serve dinner to her family, she notices blood is coming through her shirt, and she goes to the bathroom to wipe it off. She goes back to serve dinner again, she notices it’s bleeding again, and she goes to the bathroom for what I remember being a long time in the bathroom, bleeding. 

These images of her in the bathroom, trying to wipe this blood off herself, I love it because it’s not only a great image visually, but for female viewers, this idea of being in the bathroom bleeding, and trying to hide from people [laughs], is something women can relate to a lot. It’s one of those movies where I’m like “Wow this movie is working on a few different levels”. It’s one of those things I love about it but that Christmas ghost story is not especially beloved by fans of the series. For many people, that’s when they started taking a nosedive—when they got away from the classic stories. 

I also like Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. There’s that incredible psychedelic sequence in the middle of it, just the most amazing still images. There are people online who have screencaps of this whole psychedelic sequence because every image in it is absolutely breathtaking. 

What other films are you looking forward to watching at this year’s SXSW?

There is a documentary about Guy Clark (Without Getting Killed or Caught) I’ve put on my list of things to watch. I used to live in Austin for many years, and I was a music programmer when I was there. I worked with the Alamo Drafthouse. Even though horror is my background, music was always my second interest. When I started working at the Alamo there were already horror and exploitation people, so they didn’t really need another horror specialist so I tended to focus a lot on music stuff. 

So often with SXSW that’s what appeals to me, going to their 24 Beats Per Second section. I’d go to the Midnight section ‘cos that’s where it’s the most obvious place you’re going to find the horror stuff, but the 24 Beats Per Second section is often very exciting to me. 

There’s the Delia Derbyshire one too, which I’m looking forward to.

My friend Andy Starke is one of the producers of that. He produced A Field in England and Kill List. He was really a big help on the folk horror movie because he introduced me to Jim Williams who did the score, and Williams did the music for A Field in England and Kill List. For me it was a coup to get one of the people who scored some of the most important folk horror films and do the score for my documentary.