A bewitching celebration of filmic folk horror

A magisterial documentary screening Sunday at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater examines the influence of folklore on horror cinema.

Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched. Credit: Roxie Theater

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is one of the best documentaries about cinema I’ve ever seen — and that includes Bertrand Tavernier’s similarly weighty 2016 epic My Journey Through French Cinema. An incredible 192-minute-long celebration of filmic folk horror, Woodlands Dark screens for one time only at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 20, and won’t be available for streaming — so mask up, grab your vaccination card, and head across the bridge for more than three hours of amazing cinema.

Directed by Kier-La Janisse, Woodlands Dark takes an in-depth look at the influence of ancient legends and folk tales on motion pictures. The film’s first hour focuses on British contributions to the genre (with particular emphasis on the “unholy trinity” of 1968’s Witchfinder General, 1970’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, and 1973’s The Wicker Man), its second on American films — with their themes of colonial displacement and fascination with “Indian burial grounds” — and its third on films from the rest of the world.

Janisse’s film feature a lot of ancient stones — obelisks, menhirs, and other monoliths — and she leaves absolutely none of them un-turned. From the BBC’s well-regarded Christmas ghost stories to Nang Nak, a favorite Cambodian tale of the supernatural I was sure wouldn’t warrant a mention but nevertheless gets one around the 170-minute mark, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched will likely be the last word on its topic.

In addition to generous selections from scores of films (many of which, tantalizingly, I’d never heard of before), interview subjects include Witchfinder General‘s still youthful Ian Ogilvy (pushing 80 but looking at least 20 years younger), Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard, and critics and academics of all persuasions. If you’ve never seen the films discussed herein, Woodlands Dark will fire your imagination; if you’ve seen them before, you’ll likely feel compelled to revisit them. For anyone interested in fantastic cinema, this is a must-see.

There’s Always Tomorrow. Credit: Pacific Film Archive

Speaking of films I’ve never previously experienced, Pacific Film Archive will screen director Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 19. Co-starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (together for the fourth and final time on the big screen), the film has — like many Universal productions — been unavailable to television for decades and poorly promoted on home video.

The avuncular MacMurray plays Cliff Groves, a successful toy manufacturer in Anytown, USA whose happy family life conceals a restless wanderlust. Wife Marion (the once glamorous Joan Bennett, here thoroughly de-glamorized) and children Vinnie (William Reynolds), Ellen (Gigi Perreau), and Frankie (Judy Nugent) may love him, but that love rarely manifests itself beyond asking for money or borrowing the car.

Enter Norma Miller Vale (Stanwyck), a former toy company employee turned successful fashion designer who Cliff hasn’t seen in years. Carelessly meeting her at a desert resort — where nothing between them actually happens — Cliff finds his children turning on him when they discover he’s been “seeing another woman.”

This is a quintessential “women’s picture,” with Bernard Schoenfeld’s screenplay depicting Norma and Marion as the film’s grounded, sensible characters. Meanwhile, young buck Vinnie is a complete dolt, who (based on precious little evidence) convinces his siblings that dad has been fooling around, even though he and Norma haven’t done much more than go horseback-riding and swimming together.

There’s Always Tomorrow looks great (cinematographer Russell Metty would go on to win an Oscar for Spartacus a few years hence) and MacMurray and Stanwyck, though not generating the sexual heat they did in Double Indemnity, pitch perfect. It’s a hugely entertaining weepie with a two-hanky denouement — but keep a third one handy just in case.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.