... or, The VVitch.
I don't find most modern horror pictures scary. The ones that scare usually do so with ideas, reaching beyond our defenses to find and exploit a personal weakness. The scariest, most disturbing and just-plain best made horror film in ages, Robert Eggers' The Witch deserves a harvest basket of praise. It owes nothing to any current trend in horror, easily outpacing the fading zombie craze and the already-dim teenage vampire romance subgenre. Using simple means and precise period sets and costumes, Eggers' film has a classic feel. We reach for comparison back to the creepy precedents of the silent Häxan and Carl Th. Dreyer's Day of Wrath.
The story is baleful and uneasy from the first scene forward. Too severe for his pilgrim colleagues, Puritan William (Ralph Ineson of the Harry Potter movies) is cast out from the Plymouth Colony to fend for himself in a farm in the woods. He and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are failing as farmers, even as their family grows. Their oldest is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a cherubic girl seemingly too sensual to be part of this family. Her slightly younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is a true-blue scout eager to help his father but troubled by the oppressively harsh concept of original sin. The play of the tiny twins Mercy and Jonas is the only carefree element on the farm, but the kids sing malicious, disturbing rhymes to the family's goat, Black Philip. Katherine is delighted by her newborn, Sam. She considers her family a success -- all of her children have survived childbirth.
Then the impossible happens. The newborn Sam literally disappears while in the care of Thomasin, a shock from which the family doesn't really recover. There's talk of wolves being responsible, but nobody is convinced of that. It's not long before guilt, resentment and recriminations bring forth the specter of witchcraft -- a concept that to these people is very real. The family's idea of faith is so rigid that a minor infraction of trust can be taken as evidence of diabolical treachery. William repents of his pride in leaving the colony but also of his failure to protect his family. Faced with the possibility of starvation and the loss of her child, the frustrated Katherine begins to turn on Thomasin.
Precisely written, acted and directed, The Witch is not a 'fun' experience. Violence toward children, especially a helpless baby, makes it a grim affair. The family crumbles under the pressure. A psychological horror film (the liberal kind) would make the supernatural element more ambiguous, allowing us the 'out' of believing that internal family issues and unyielding fundamentalist faith are responsible for the discord that rips William's family apart. The simple survival problem has always been part of the human condition. Failed pioneers starve, go nuts, go savage.
But The Witch takes a different, and equally non-exploitative tack, that's not for casual viewers. We either see real witches conducting their horrid business, or mental manifestations of witches that the settlers believe in. Things happen that are impossible and unexplainable except by the agency of witchcraft. The movie challenges us to believe, and it offers none of the expected exciting, escapist horror film thrills. There's no real battle between good and evil. The forces of Christian Good are so rigid and inwardly punishing that innocents are scapegoated, aiding and abetting the forces of Evil. The kids are constantly being reminded that they're worthless sinners. Since none of her children have been baptized, Katherine is terrified that any that might die, will burn forever in Hell.
Everybody fails everybody in this show. Thomasin has done nothing but is burdened with the blame for the disappearance of Sam. The brave Caleb sets forth to do good, to prove himself to his father and break the evil spell, but falls victim to a weakness he's carefully hidden. The insecure individuals derive strength from their faith, but nothing that can match the power arrayed before them. Handicapped by an unyielding obsession with Original Sin, they're easily isolated and turned against each other. Even Roman Polanski's darkest films offer more hope than this.
As William's home self-destructs, nature seems to turn on them as well. Is the goat Black Philip really the Devil? Is the twins' malevolent behavior inspired by Satanic power? William realizes that he's guilty of the sin of pride, for removing his family from the only society that can sustain it. He's uncompromising, all right, so pure that he can't tolerate the perceived backsliding of his peers. Out alone in nature, the odds aren't very good. How can he be expected to fight the forces of black magic? He can chop wood all day and night to keep his spirit focused, but it won't do any good.
The finale's unequivocal celebration of satanic power must thrill devil cults everywhere -- The Witch would seem to uphold the 'glory' of their creed. This only makes the movie more chilling. It's like the ultimate nightmare for conservatives, a doomsday picture for the concept of family, offering no reassurance whatsoever.
Several reviews I've read ask if The Witch is an allegory, but I'll bet that they don't go into details for fear of alienating readers... politics, you know. To me the film's 'war on the family' would seem to represent the fears of religious fundamentalists, faced with an overpowering culture that threatens their beliefs and makes it difficult for them to raise their children in a pure atmosphere. Where did I get this idea? When I was about 14 in Del Rosa in San Bernardino, I talked to a girl who moved in three houses down the block. She said she couldn't talk to me. Then I was invited for supper. The parents didn't say what they were, but they asked me what religion I was. They explained that they were on a greater mission for God, and that was why they didn't have a TV and why their daughter couldn't talk to me. They just wanted me to know that they were doing nothing bad and didn't have anything against me personally, but there would be no socializing. The girl stared at her plate the entire time. These purportedly pious people were predisposed to believe that I was tainted by something -- the Devil, I suppose. It was like they were being polite to an unclean neighbor, and proving to their daughter (in their eyes) that they were just doing what was best for her. I was totally confused. Had I seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers then, I would have thought these were Pod People. I never saw the girl again. I guess they found Alexander Avenue too evil, because a few weeks later they were gone.
And that's one reason The Witch freaks me out. Normally I frown at movies that 'cheat' by battering audience members with their own religious beliefs. Robert Eggers' show challenges our disbelief in Satanic power in a way that can't be easily dismissed. The show has power because we know there are plenty of people who believe every bit of what happens in it.
Eggers' filmmaking skills impressed critics as well. The recreation of 1630 Massachusetts (mostly in Northern Ontario) is painstakingly done, right down to the hand-sewn garments and the austere lighting, which is almost all natural. Ralph Ineson has one of those voices of authority, which when combined with the archaic English (reportedly authentic), commands our attention. Kate Dickie is the good woman crumbling under tensions she can't reconcile. These 'good' people have 'strength in The Lord,' yet are far too ready to turn on each other, and even condemn their children. Little Harvey Scrimshaw is the story's hero, a pure knight ready to slay dragons. We'd have loved to see an alternate universe cut where Caleb saves his family. Anya Taylor-Joy is a real gem of an actress. Thomasin has an abiding joy for life, and we can see her slightly resisting her parents' baleful influence.
Part of the dread of this show is watching our hopes and expectations dashed, again and again. I found myself hoping that a Peter Cushing figure would appear to straighten things out, or maybe that some savage Indians would come along and save the family. Nope, The Witch is brimstone, fire and unholy glory right through to the end.
The irrationality is what nags. We accept what we see in The Witch, even though it makes no sense that other humans, particularly a lone crone in the forest, could survive out there. But there she is, scuttling through the trees in a red hood, or transformed into a succubus designed to seduce a nine year-old-boy. Yikes, I guess witches are real. Sign me up, we've got some burning to do.
Liongate & A24's Blu-ray + Digital HD of The Witch: A New-England Folktale is a sterling transfer of this excellent horror show. The so-so box office performer has garnered major critical attention, and has reportedly put Robert Eggers on the map as a director to watch.
Eggers' sparse and precise style is rendered well in the digital cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, who de-saturates the image just enough to make what should be beautiful scenery, somewhat ominous. The Puritans' fear of the woods is tangible. Even more jarring is the films audioscape, which sticks to natural sound for most scenes. When evil is afoot, it offers screaming choral effects that resemble the Ligeti wailing in 2001. This is perhaps the film's only nod toward horror movie conventions -- the creep-out music tells us that menace is all around. If I were William, I'd be running back to the colony to bring a posse to burn down the whole forest.
The director gives us a full audio commentary. He details every aspect of his production, including things he thinks don't work, or didn't work to his satisfaction. They had to let corn rot for months so it would have the correct miserable appearance to be a failed crop. Eggers sounds like a serious but realistic guy, especially when he talks about how the trained goat hired for the film just couldn't perform the way he wanted it to perform. It's plenty menacing just the same. Eggers doesn't get very far into what his movie means, or what his own views on the supernatural are. That only makes the commentary rather creepy as well, as the filmmaker's philosophy is as guarded as that of the movie itself. I didn't notice until Eggers pointed it out, but the actual title on the film itself is The VVitch with a double-V, yet another creepy touch.
Some theatrical viewers had difficulty with the archaic English dialogue, but on disc the removable subtitles take away that problem. The language is actually not that obscure, and it's all spoken clearly.
The Witch is a fine film, but for me also an unpleasant experience. Nobody's capable of being objective with all things, and I've always had a negative reaction to scenes depicting the killing of small children. It's just not something I care to contemplate; I can always imagine some sick viewer being encouraged by scenes of that sort. My enjoyment of this film gets cut down several notches right at the beginning, the same way it does in a scene near the end of Robert Mulligan's The Other. I wouldn't change either movie, but neither am I in a hurry to see them again.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Text (C) Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson