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Severin Films. 15 disc set.
“Folk Horror” is a buzzword that has blossomed over the past decade to become a marketing phrase. It brings to mind things British, pagan and ancient/medieval, usually in that order. This makes for a nice narrow niche to categorize and sell to the audience; if a film has certain elements that are on the checklist checked off, it’s officially Folk Horror®. The genre even has its Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General. Of course, with some digging, we find that there’s a lot more to the subject to beyond those tentpoles.
It’s a massive subject tackle, and we’re fortunate that the person taking it on is Kier-la Janisse (film-programmer/editor; founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Stories; author of “House of Psychotic Women“) with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), a 192 minute documentary serving as a primer/immersion into Folk Horror. It’s the foundation for “All The Haunts Be Ours,” a massive boxs et with 19 feature films (some making their debut on Blu-ray) and tons of bonus material. In short, this is a college semester course compressed into 15 discs; and although it’s pricey, it’s a lot less than what one would be paying for an actual college class. This is the most ambitious box set that Severin Films has done to date—and they’ve done collections of Al Adamson, Christopher Lee’s European Films, and Andy Milligan in just the past three years!
Woodlands (the first disc in the set, also available as a standalone release) comprehensively examines Folk Horror, beginning with its roots in folklore and literature and moving into film, starting with that Unholy Trinity and other British films, plus television programs like “The Owl Service,” “Children of the Stones,” “Doctor Who,” and the work of Nigel Kneale. The documentary then shifts to North America, examining it by region: New England (Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King); the South (influences of folk music and Evangelicalism), and the West (Native American lore). After that, the film goes global, focusing on horror in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, addressing a lot of films you’ve heard of (Viy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the Coffin Joe movies, to name just a few), along with many more that you probably haven’t.
For a 3+ hour documentary, you don’t feel the time drag, and you’ll spend a lot of time afterwards Google-searching availability of titles. Even though it’s a deep dive into the subject, it also feels like it’s just scratching the surface and not even close to being the Last Word in Folk Horror. The subject is thoroughly examined, and even though you could walk away with some sort of definition, “Folk Horror” doesn’t seem “defined” in a way that traps it in a box. It’s a fluid term encouraging discussion, debate, and other perspectives: a diversity demonstrated spectacularly by the films curated in the set.
Disc 2 has the USA’s lone offering, Eyes of Fire, a long-desired title from 1983 that hasn’t been available on home video since VHS and which has gathered some interest for being a precursor to The Witch. Set in pre-Revolutionary War America, a group of settlers led by an unconventional preacher escape persecution from their village and set off to find a place of their own. They find an area with remnants of a prior settlement, an area the local indigenous tribes avoid with good reason: there’s a presence in the woods and it’s very hungry.
Directed and written by Avery Crounse, Eyes went against the trend of horror films of the time by the setting alone: as far as I can tell, it’s the first American horror feature set in Colonial America. It’s mature in aspects not usually associated with the genre at the time: respectful in its depiction of Native Americans, and advanced in its sexual politics (the preacher, Will Smythe, seems to be in a polygamous relationship with members of his flock, with some additional adultery topping it off). It also subtly handles attitudes of the time towards the Irish, as Irish folklore figures into the story. Though it’s low-budget, it’s visually striking and cleverly uses what effects it has. Eyes of Fire is one of those lost gems that hardly anyone has seen; but the few who were lucky enough to catch it in whatever form ended up talking about it forever. It’s wonderful that the film is finally available in a quality presentation, scanned in 4K from the original camera negative. But what’s even better is the inclusion of Crying Blue Sky, a longer alternate cut made before Crounse did some trimming and tweaks after audience reactions at preview screenings. My personal feeling is that Blue Sky is the superior cut; there’s more characterization and better pacing. Eyes of Fire is structured as a horror film; Crying Blue Sky is an arthouse drama with occult/fantastick elements that might throw an audience expecting a period drama. It’s one of the highlights of the se,t and also available as a standalone release.
The set moves to European Folk Horror starting with disc three, featuring the work of Serbian filmmaker Ðorđe Kadijević, the feature Leptirica (1973) and two films for television, Štićenik and Devičanska Svirka. Disc four brews up a double dose of witchery with Czechoslovakia’s Witchhammer (1970), directed by Otakar Vávra, which is very much in the Witchfinder General/The Devils school of folk horror. From Russia comes Viy (1967), an adaptation of Gogol’s short story. Both have been previously released. Second Run issued an all-region Blu-ray of Witchhamer, and Severin ports over most of the extras from that release, adding a commentary from Czech film historian Irena Kovarova. Severin also previously released Viy on Blu-ray and reissues all that disc’s special features, excluding a featurette with Richard Stanley.
Disc Five houses Norway’s Lake of the Dead (1958) from Norway, a murder mystery with supernatural overtones paired with a television film from Iceland, Tilbury (1987). Tilbury is odd and unique, one of the weirdest candidates in the set; the tale set during WWII, when British and American military occupied the island, and features a creature from local folklore, the “tilberi.” Those who appreciate the work of will find this very much to their taste.
Discs Six and Seven feature a block of films from the land down under. Six hosts The Dreaming (1988), with an early performance by John Noble in a supporting role in a story of archeology and the sins of the past that starts off with a setup reminiscent of Nomads (1986). Also on the disc is Kadaicha (1988), a more traditional tale of teens menaced by supernatural forces with an agenda, influenced by Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Disc Seven goes highbrow with Ann Turner’s Celia (1989), a psychological portrait of the titular nine-year old character set in late 1950’s Melbourne, backgrounded by the Communist scare and rabbit control policies. Of the films in the set, this is probably the one with the most tangential connection to folk horror, coming entirely from Celia’s fascination with the tale “The Hobyahs.” It’s more in line with fare like The Spirit of the Beehive or Curse of the Cat People, focusing on the interior fantasy lives of children. Celia is paired with the much lower-brow Alison’s Birthday (1981), a derivative but fun example of Australian Satanic Panic. This is Alison‘s debut on Blu-ray, while Celia was previously released by Second Run in an edition with different extras than on the new Severin disc.
Disc Eight travels back to Europe—Poland, to be exact—for two films: 1983’s Wilczyca (The She-Wolf), an atmospheric tale of lycanthropy in the 19th Century that’s unnerving, with a deliberate pace and increasing dread. The co-feature is Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach (1970) which also features a type of lycanthropy—perhaps—amidst an academic’s visit to translate a text. Also atmospheric and reliant on suggestion for its horror aspects, it’s also notable for an appearance by Malgorzata Braunek (the wife of director at the time).
Disc Nine heads back North America—Canada actually— and Native American folk horror with Clearcut (1991), an adaptation of the M. T. Kelly novel “A Dream Like Mine” directed by Polish director Ryszard Bugajski, starring Graham Greene, Ron Lea, Michael Hogan and Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Lea is Peter Maguire, an attorney representing the local tribes against a logging company, and doing so unsuccessfully. His frustrations growing, he encounters Arthur (Greene) who materializes those frustrations into direct action—by holding the logging manager, Bud (Hogan) hostage. This act spirals into increasing violence, forcing Peter into a confrontation with Arthur, who may or may not be a avenging spirit of Nature. Clearcut is another of those lost gems finally getting wider exposure; it barely got a theatrical release outside of Canada, and hasn’t had a domestic home video release since VHS, but those that managed to see it didn’t forget Graham Greene’s powerhouse performance in a leading role. Controversial at the time of its making, it still packs a punch thirty years later, and remains relevant in terms of current events with issues facing indigenous peoples in Canada, environmentalism, and civil disobedience.
We stop in Italy in Disc Ten with Il Demonio (The Demon), a 1963 Italian film by Brunello Rondi (a regular writing collaborator of ‘s). The Demon is about a young woman, Purificata (Daliah Lavi), in a small Italian village who turns to witchcraft in an attempt to win back her lover, Antonio (Frank Wolff), who has spurned her to marry a “respectable” girl. Her behavior causes the village and her family to believe she is possessed, which leads to attempts to “cure” her, which eventually turn fatal. A precursor to The Exorcist (also based on a “true story” and also featuring a “spider-walk” scene), but there’s hardly any supernatural events in the film, save for a scene where Purificata has a conversation with a young boy by a creek bed and it’s discovered he was dead at the time. It’s more of a character drama of a young woman’s torment in an environment that has no outlet or place for her. The villagers have no other explanation for the intensity of her lust for Antonio other than “demonic possession.” Their solution is to shun her—and eventually, hunt her down. This is one of Daliah Levi’s best performances and another highlight of the set. The film has been fully restored (previous releases in Italy had cuts) and features an informative commentary by Kat Ellinger.
Paired with Il Demonio is 1993’s Dark Waters (previously reviewed in full by Pete Trbovich). It’s directed by Mariano Baino, and serves as palate-cleansing light entertainment after the intensity of the previous film. The prologue involves a religious order on an isolated island and a church flooding, the deaths of a priest and nun, and a stone medallion. 20 years later, a young woman, Elizabeth, arrives at the island, spurred by letters from a friend, seeking answers about her father’s donations to the order. She has flashbacks to her childhood, involving someone who could be her sister, and sees lots of gruesome imagery. Every so often a nun attempts to kill her. You’ve pretty much seen everything in Dark Waters before, but it’s a fun mashup of nunsploitation/giallo with a touch of Lovecraft, and despite the low budget it has some impressive visual touches. Even more entertaining is the making-of documentary about shooting in Ukraine shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was also previously released by Severin; the set release only retains an audio commentary and the documentary.
Discs Eleven and Twelve go back to Britain. Eleven features a 366 Canon entry, A Field in England (2013), and the lesser known Anchoress (1993) directed by Chris Newby. The latter is a tale of religious faith based on a true story. A young peasant girl devoted to the Church, Christine Carpenter, becomes an anchoress: a woman walled into a cell in the church to live a life of prayer and contemplation, and to offer blessings to outsiders. Anchoress features performances from Christopher Eccleston, Pete Postlethwaite, , and Gene Bervoets, and striking visuals. Fans of Derek Jarman‘s work will find this to their taste.‘s psychedelic post-Renaissance saga
Disc Twelve features two BBC television productions from the acclaimed series “Play For Today”: Penda’s Fen (1974), directed by Alan Clarke, and Robin Redbreast (1970), directed by James MacTaggart. Written by David Rudkin, Penda’s Fen is the coming of age story of Stephen (Spencer Banks) a vicar’s attempting to find his place in things—school, religion, sexuality—which involves encounters with angels and demons, Edward Elgar, the pagan past, hypocrisy and authority, and philosophical musings. It’s very dense, very layered, very literate, very British, and totally approachable and entertaining. Robin Redbreast, written by John Bowen, is a chilling tale of a modern woman who purchases a house in a small country village and gets ensnared in the pagan rituals of the townspeople. If this sounds somewhat familiar, there’s a reason. It was broadcast four years before The Wicker Man came onto the scene. They share some aspects of the basic premise; however, each becomes its own separate entity as events play out. As obscure as The Wicker Man was in its initial release (which is hard to believe now, with so many versions available), Robin was even more so—most television programs in Britain did not get repeat broadcasts, except in certain circumstances (which Robin did, due to technical difficulties). The old BBC also had the unfortunate policy of wiping tapes as a cost-saving practice. Robin was a victim of that practice, but luckily a copy was archived via kinescope.
The set includes three bonus CDs: the original soundtrack of Jim Williams’ music for the Woodlands documentary, and a reading of Arthur Machen’s story “The White People” by actress Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw), which takes up two discs. Rounding out the package is a 156 page book with essays on aspects of folk horror by Stephen Vincent Benet, Stephen Volk, Stephen R. Bissette, and others. Wow!