Cayenn Landau says George Popov’s analysis of three British landscapes lends weight and credibility to folklore and legend in a speculative documentary.
Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England (2022) is not just a dalliance into the world of wooded British folklore but a step-by-step guide to why you should never go camping in England. The speculative documentary directed by George Popov and written by Jonathan Russell covers the legends of Wistman’s Wood, Cannock Chase, and Epping Forest. Each landscape is carpeted with moss, dark and twisty lore, and a true-crime case—or five.
Popov appears once, at the beginning of the film, to introduce it, “When the line between fact and fiction is shrouded in mist and shadow, beyond that threshold is a place that can change our perspective and everything we think we know. I call this place the sideworld.” From there, he fades into the background, remaining behind the camera as the documentary’s narrator.
What Popov sets out to do—create a documentary that occupies a space between fact, fiction, legend, and history—is ambitious, especially given the short runtime of Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England. It often succeeds in its drive: Popov has done pervasive research on each location and is eager to share his findings with viewers.
Visually, the film is gorgeous and utterly devoid of people (eyewitnesses, actors, ghosts, and otherwise). Nearly every shot (save for the interspersion of old drawings, articles, and occasionally a crime-scene photo) is of each natural location in its untouched glory–moss-covered rocks, a silent pond, plants swaying in the wind, a sunset over a forest. While a lack of cinematic movement and action might weigh any other documentary down, the effect it creates for Sideworld is unique. When paired with Popov’s narration, the viewer is left to imagine for themselves what lurks behind a boulder or tree. Is it the Pig Man of Cannock Chase? The ghost of Dick Turpin, antihero extraordinaire of Epping Forest? Or Popov’s ideas and formulations, which, despite mainly being held at bay, use extensive analysis of true crime and folklore to ultimately argue that each English location is home to forces that cannot be fully understood?
Although the film cannot quite decide if it wants to push an agenda or leave the viewer to decide for themself what lies within each natural landscape, Popov’s narrations guide the film beautifully. There’s a lot to learn about each location, and he doesn’t hold back in the history lessons—parsing through detail after detail, story after story, in an infectiously-dedicated manner. Popov acts as a David Attenboroughesque guide to each location with a rhythmic cadence and perfect pace. Instead of describing the mating habits of Galapagos lizards, he confidently and methodically leads us through the history of a “suicide pond” and a serial killer.
The only narrative hindrance is the “eyewitness accounts'' interwoven throughout the film. Actors Suzie Frances Garton and William Poulter read testimony supposedly from individuals who encountered paranormal activity in various parts of each location. These individuals are never clarified, nor is the fact that Garton and Poulter are voice actors and not eyewitnesses. The testimony stands in stark contrast to Popov’s detailed, source-heavy analysis. While each story is chilling—one, read by Garton, described encountering a pack of beastly spectral hounds from within Wistman’s Wood—they all lack a follow-up by Popov.
Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England is an informative, in-depth, and oddly calming horror documentary thanks to its cinematography by Richard Suckling. As a speculative documentary, it is as much a liminal space as Popov describes the “sideworld” to be. Teetering between faltering testimony and a confident, in-depth narration, it is as much theory-driven as it is fact-filled. Ultimately, Popov argues, not every voice calling from an English forest is trying to offer you a warm cuppa or some fresh-made fish and chips. Beware of Old Crockern!