The Witch (2015)

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*. Did there have to really be a witch? Or witches? Wouldn’t the story have made (more) sense without them?
*. I’m not arguing that writer-director Robert Eggers would have had a better movie if he’d left the actual existence of witches ambiguous, but I’m raising the question because it seems to me the story didn’t require him to come out on one side or the other.
*. For most of the film it’s possible to view the events as being religious delusions brought about by a particular cultural matrix, the stressful conditions the family is coping with (small group dynamics, cabin fever), and Thomasin and Caleb entering puberty. I’ve also seen it suggested (by Mark Kermode, among others) that the very bad things are all a group hallucination, perhaps brought on by eating rotten food, but I think that’s a stretch. In any event, when Eggers shows us the witch, alone, rendering the dead baby and then rising into the night air on her stick, he gives the game away. The witches are real.
*. Settling that question, for better or worse, The Witch goes on to be a very good thriller. It’s wonderfully photographed, lit, and scored, and has a literate script that presents us with real people doing their best, by their lights, to survive a difficult situation. That they live in a demon-haunted world isn’t their fault. This isn’t an idiot plot.

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*. It’s a fresh twist on an old story, but not a totally ground-breaking one. Basically what we have here is the cursed family motif — very popular in franchise horror films of this period like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister — transferred to seventeenth-century New England.

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*. Such a simple act of translation implies that The Witch shares common ground with these more contemporary examples of the formula. A couple of these strike me as worth highlighting.
*. In the first place we have the assertion that the devil is real. God? Not so much. William’s family are pious, and rigidly devout in their worship of the Lord and observance of his commandments, but this is something that does them absolutely no good at all. Faith and prayer have no efficacy when it comes to fighting the powers of darkness, which are presented as being far more involved in the affairs of this world. This isn’t so remarkable in stories about modern suburban families, but in Puritan New England it comes as a bit of a shock. I’ve seen hair-splitting analyses of this film that try and square what happens with some brand of theology, but they strike me as unconvincing (Caleb lies about looking for apples and so dies with an apple coming out of his gorge). I guess God didn’t die recently.

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*. The other point to flag is the dark ending. As with several of the other cursed-family franchises I mentioned earlier, the family here is wiped out. I made the point in my review of Sinister 2 how this bleakness marks a real shift in the horror genre in the twenty-first century. For a writer like Stephen King, for example, one of the key focal points for his stories is the nuclear family under threat. The defense of the family has long been a genre staple — just think of all the home-invasion horror movies there have been. But in this new generation of films the family is annihilated, suggesting more of an anger at the family than an anxiety over its vulnerability.
*. As I mentioned with regard to Sinister, it’s hard not to see this as reflecting badly on us. And here, in The Witch, we are again. I mean, this is not a dysfunctional family. Obviously they’re under a lot of stress, but the parents aren’t cruel or abusive and the kids may fight but they also seem to care for each other. But as with all those other horror films we’re left with a bunch of dead bodies on the ground and evil triumphant. Thomasin even seems joyful at her assumption into the night. Clearly there are many among us who feel that the family (meaning the family unit, not this particular family) should just go to hell.

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*. The cast is great. I especially like the worn parents, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. On the commentary track Eggers says Ineson has the greatest voice in Western Civilization and a face “like a Northern Renaissance carving.” Anya Taylor-Joy projects alert innocence. Also wonderful are the little boy and girl, who seem almost like dolls. Which is to say they’re both cute and eerie.

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*. The Billy goat Black Phillip is also good. Apparently he was hard to deal with, but that’s goats. I don’t like goats. I’ve always thought there was something evil about them.
*. I’ve also mucked out a lot of stalls in my time. A lot. The way Thomasin is doing it she’ll be at it all day.
*. Eggers: “Fowler’s not the right breed of dog, but what can you do?” I don’t know. Get the right breed of dog? Or a dog that looks a little more like the right breed of dog?
*. But this is nit-picking. Overall I found this to be a very effective, atmospheric film where the professionalism more than makes up for a low budget and short shooting schedule. It’s amazing what good things can happen when everyone just does their job and the whole point of the project isn’t to rip something (or someone) off.

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