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Fantasia Film Fest 2021: Hellbender and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched explore folk horror diversely

Images from Hellbender and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.
Images from Hellbender and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. Pic credit: Yellow Veil Pictures/ Severin Films

Hellbender and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched may not be the same flavor of cinema – Hellbender being a narrative feature and Woodlands being a documentary – but together they complement one another as a solid double feature.

Hellbender takes witchcraft and throws it into a creative coming-of-age story while Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is the essential documentary for everything folk horror in cinema.

We were able to see both films this past week at Fantasia Film Festival 2021 and both are inspired works of their own.

Here are our capsule reviews of Hellbender and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched review from Fantasia Film Fest 2021

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is a mammoth of a documentary, clocking in over 3 hours in runtime. This is the equivalent of OJ: Made in America for cinephiles that want to swim deep into the waters of folk horror.

The all-encompassing documentary is directed by Kier-La Janisse and contains over 50 plus interviews with cinematic historians, filmmakers, and so many more. Honestly, trying to summarize this documentary is rather cumbersome because it is truly far-reaching in research and scale.

The documentary begins with the “folk horror trilogy” as the doc calls them, Michael Reeves’ 1968 film Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s 1971 movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (the 1973 classic not the Nicolas Cage disaster).

It then explores the branching of influence they had on television in the United Kingdom and various countries to the present day with films like Robert Eggers The Witch and Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommer. And that is barely scratching the surface of this epically produced documentary.

This is the kind of genre dissection that should be shown in film schools across the globe. Throughout the experience of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched there are films that this reviewer had never heard of and at times inspired a watch list in a separate document. It might be a firm reminder that some of us are not as cultured as we think we are in cinema.

Opening titles from Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.
Opening titles from Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. Pic credit: Severin Films

Janisse’s documentary jumps from various topics such as witchcraft, voodoo, cults, spiritual folklore (La Llorona), and many more within its roots. And it does not stick with one culture as it flies into various cultures of moviemaking. And the ambition is absolutely impressive from the way the documentary flows to the incredibly rich detail of its analysis of folk horror.

Janisse clearly did not make this easy on herself and the hard work is on full display. She clearly has a love for this subject and it is felt in its lengthy runtime.

The sad part is, some will be intimidated by the 3-hour watch of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (as this writer was) but true lovers of cinema will be rewarded as this is an excellent documentary that gives the viewer so much to feast upon.

The film is streaming on-demand at the Fantasia Film Festival (for Canadian audiences see ticket info here) and currently does not possess a release date outside of festivals.

Zelda Adams as Izzy from Hellbender.
Zelda Adams as Izzy from Hellbender. Pic credit: Yellow Veil Pictures

Hellbender review from Fantasia Film Fest 2021

Unlike Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, the film Hellbender takes inspiration from folk horror and applies it to a coming-of-age horror film about a mother and daughter who are witches known as Hellbenders.

The story centers on Izzy (Zelda Adams) and Mother (Toby Poser) who live in isolation in the woods. As we are introduced to both of them, we find out Izzy has been homeschooled her entire life, and both Izzy and her Mother play music in a band as a hobby.

Their daily life seems sweet and normal until Izzy finds other teenagers like her in a nearby home. This results in her meeting a local teen named Amber (Lulu Adams) who takes her in as a friend. But after a day of trying new things with Amber and her crew, Izzy starts having strange things happen to her. She begins to understand why her mother kept her hidden from others. Izzy discovers her powers.

Hellbender is a true indie film in every sense of the word. The movie is directed by three of its cast members and has a pretty decent soundtrack that also seems to be self-produced.

The heart and soul of this horror film lie with its two main leads, Adams and Poser. The movie hinges on their mother and daughter dynamic, and they both show tremendous work here. Adams is especially good in Hellbender, showing off a range of emotions from sweet and endearing teen evolving into a fearsome presence. For someone this young, she conveys a lot of potential and might be a leading actress to watch out for.

The only issue to be found with Hellbender is within its third act character choices. Not specifically where they end up, just how fast they land there. It’s hard to explain without spoiling, so let’s just say how far it goes with one of its leads did not feel fully earned.

That said, Hellbender still remains a solid film despite this. It’s a well-made coming-of-age horror flick that contains a dark mother and daughter story about a teenager coming into her own. I think most parents can relate to this struggle with or without the witchcraft.

Shudder acquired the rights to Hellbender and it is expected to stream sometime in 2022.

To read more of our coverage from Fantasia Film Festival 2021, check out our capsule reviews of Alien on Stage and Sweetie You Won’t Believe It, our capsule reviews of Brain Freeze and Seobok, and our reviews of Bull and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.

Stay tuned for more coverage of Fantasia Film Festival 2021 at Monsters & Critics.

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