Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Witch (2015)

The Puritans who came to this continent so many centuries ago were assholes. I don't think I'll get any argument on that score.

They were religious fanatics who were so obnoxious that they drove other religious fanatics up the wall, so they left themselves little recourse but to flee their homeland for The New World. There they could begin to spread their own ideas of oppression around instead of being on the receiving end.

Oh, but they weren't content to prey on the native people of the continent they claimed was their own. No, they began to turn on themselves--continuing the grand tradition of throwing around wild accusations of witchcraft as an excuse to murder women, children, and men that they disliked. Witches were never anything but a pretense, or possibly ergot poisoning.

Of course, the fact that the witches killed in these trials weren't real hasn't stopped horror stories over the years from trotting out the old trope of the lynched witch who turns out to actually be a witch and curses their killers. I've spoken of such stories quite recently, in fact.

I've known many a person who finds this distasteful, and it's hard not to agree. Innocent people died because of superstition and hatred. Hard to imagine something like Hocus Pocus, a relatively modern movie nominally aimed at kids, focused on showing that other purveyors of historical slaughters were right about their targets all along.

Yet, there is room for a Puritan-based witch story that doesn't blindly accept that those assholes were right, nor simply shows how evil they were because of their misplaced convictions. Rather than just implying the Puritans were right all along, imagine if a movie decided to accept that witches follow the rules and behaviors that Puritans believed they did--but decided to show how utterly unprepared they'd be to deal with an actual witch.

If you know anything about it already, you know that hypothetical film I speak of exists in The Witch. Or The VVitch if you prefer.

Even among Puritans in the New England of 1630, holier-than-thou types are not tolerated well. And so it comes to pass that the Governor (Julian Richings) of one Puritan Plantation rules to excommunicate one William (Ralph Ineson). William doesn't exactly help his case by deriding his judges as "false Christians," but he also is perfectly happy to accept exile.

His family is less enthused about having to brave the wilderness because their patriarch decided he had to have the last word, but they have no recourse in a Puritan society but to follow. Thus William's wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie); eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw); and twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are loaded up on the wagon and trundled off to the edge of a foreboding wood.

'Thanks a lot, dad."
Months later, the family has built a home, a small barn, and completed part of a third building. In addition to their horse and their dog, Fowler, they also have several goats and chickens. Katherine has also given birth to a son, Samuel. While William is struggling to get corn to grow on the property they are more or less contented--though they're Puritans, so contentment to them means lots of prayer and begging for God's mercy.

Of course, Thomasin is currently having the worst of it. She is a teenage girl developing into a woman in a household that views her very existence as sinful--her father may still have as much warmth for her as such a man can,but her mother long ago turned cold to her eldest child. So it does not help Thomasin in her mother's eyes when, while playing with Samuel on the edge of the property, the child vanishes impossibly before her eyes. William will later declare the culprit to be a wolf, but we saw a hooded woman (Bathsheba Garnett) conveying the infant through the tangled woods. Unfortunately for Samuel, witches don't treat babies any better than wolves do--it seems that babies are the prime ingredient in the ointment that allows a witch to fly.

The family understandably mourns for Samuel, especially Katherine. Thomasin suffers from nightmares, which Caleb wakes her from only after using her flailing as an opportunity to glance down her shift. While the rest of the family are in bed, William bemoans to Caleb that their harvest will not last them the winter and they must go into the woods to trap game. Caleb points out that his parents have told all of them that the woods are forbidden, but he follows his father into the wood just the same.

Their trap is empty, however. As he resets it, Caleb asks where his father got the trap, and William tells him to keep it secret--he traded Katherine's silver cup for it. Caleb then breaks down, crying and wondering if Samuel is in Hell and if he would also be in Hell if he died. William does what he can to calm his son in his own way, but the doubt remains in the boy's mind. And then--the rabbit appears for the first time.

I know you won't believe me when I say it, but this film manages what I thought to be the impossible: it makes a rabbit creepy.

Oh man, they're remaking Night of the Lepus now?
Of course, it may not actually be just a rabbit. When William prepares his rifle with Caleb's help, the firing mechanism backfires when he tries to shoot the rabbit. Despite how close his face was to the miniature explosion, William manages to avoid serious injury. His pride gets the worst of it, though we've already seen that that is where he is weakest.

Back at the homestead, the twins are driving Thomasin crazy with their constant running around and singing songs to Black Phillip, the family's large and aptly named billy goat, whom they have apparently liberated from his pen because they claim he talks to them. (I might add that the oddest part of the film, for me, was that a Puritan family would hear their children saying a black goat was speaking to them and ignore it as a simple child's game for so long) Thomasin is busy cleaning the stable and, like a typical teenager, is trying to ignore her obnoxious younger siblings. So she is not aware that Black Phillip is running free and acting erratically around the young children. William returns and is forced to wrestle the animal back into its pen, falling in dung for his trouble.

"Wouldst though like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou like to watch YouTube compilations of screaming goats?"
Katherine yells at William for disappearing with Caleb, but Caleb lies and says they went to the valley in search of an apple tree as a surprise, only to find no apples there after all. William goes along with the lie, and poor Thomasin is scolded by Katherine for letting the twins run wild--and sent to the brook to wash her father's soiled garments. Caleb comes to her later and she observes that he is acting strangely around her when she invites him to lie against her as he had done many times when they were younger. Of course, she also didn't observe him staring at the exposed skin of her chest when he walked up.

Being on the edge of adolescence and discovering your own sexual urges when the only woman for miles around is related to you must be horrifically awkward.

At any rate, the awkwardness of poor Thomasin trying to just innocently cuddle with her little brother is interrupted by Mercy appearing and announcing that she is the "witch of the wood." Caleb chides her for her childish games,but something dark comes over Thomasin. Thomasin advances on Mercy and declares that she is the witch of the wood and tells the increasingly terrified Mercy that it was her who took Samuel, and then she danced naked in the woods and signed her name in the Black Book. If her goal was to traumatize Mercy, Thomasin succeeds and then some--even Caleb is disturbed.

That night over their meager dinner, Katherine blames Thomasin for the missing silver cup, even as Thomasin insists she knows nothing about it. William takes Thomasin's side, but does not have the courage to confess he is responsible, so Katherine's ire toward Thomasin just grows. When everyone is in bed, the children pretend to sleep whilst listening to their parents argue. William does not confess his guilt, Katherine blames Thomasin for Samuel's disappearance, and William finally agrees they will take Thomasin into town the next day to work as a maid in another household.

This doesn't sit well with Caleb, and he decides to saddle the horse before first light, intending to go into the woods to check the traps and find meat and pelts to sell in the hopes of keeping Thomasin in the house. Thomasin catches him, however, and threatens to wake their parents if he doesn't take her along.

As Thomasin rides the horse and Caleb walks alongside, they talk about their house in England. Thomasin swears they had glass windows, but Caleb doesn't recall them. The first trap has a small rabbit in it, but Caleb insists they keep hunting. Unfortunately, the rabbit from earlier shows up. The horse is oddly spooked by the rabbit and then Fowler gives chase. Caleb chases Fowler and then Thomasin is thrown from the horse and knocked unconscious.

Caleb quickly finds himself lost in the tangling woods. He finds Fowler's mangled body and flees, only to shortly find a small shack made of earth of lumber. The door opens and a beautiful, voluptuous young woman (Sarah Stephens) in clearly immodest dress, slinks out. Clabe is drawn towards her and gladly accepts a kiss from her--only to find himself unable to break the kiss, and then the witch grasps him by the back of the head with her gnarled and wrinkled hand...

"Pumpkinhead? Is that you?"
There is a lot to unpack in The Witch, which is probably why it's such a divisive film. On the one hand, you can simply look at it as a simple horror movie that decided to simply tell us the story of what it was that Puritans feared would happen--why they so blindly believed that anyone accused of witchcraft must be judged and murdered--without any grander ambition than telling an effective horror story. And while it may not be the scariest film, as many promo materials would lead you to believe, there is no question that it succeeds at that goal.

This is a horrifying film that gets under your skin by following the slow burn format, rather than constantly throwing creepy figures leaping out of shadows at you. It doesn't rely on loud noises and gore to scare you, either. In fact, this film excels at knowing when it should leave its violence implied. With few exceptions, the majority of the horrors visited upon its characters happen off-screen, which actually makes them more effective.

After all, this film's first victim is a baby, and all we see of poor Samuel's fate is the witch lightly pressing a knife to his flesh--and then we cut to her furiously working a mortar and pestle, shrouded by shadows in flickering firelight, but clearly filled with something bloody. We don't need to see anything more explicit than that to know what has happened.

This is also a film that knows how to make use of its setting. From the extensive use of natural lighting, to filming in a forest so wild and overgrown that I began to imagine the trees were actually moving, ala The Evil Dead, there is no shortage of unsettling visuals. And, again, this is a film understands what he have to imagine will always be worse than what we can be shown. Even beyond the heavy use of shadows, there is barely any CGI in the film--and most of that was used to erase things from the frame, rather than add them. There are no digital phantoms, nor even mechanical ones--and there doesn't need to be.

The music is also excellent, almost contantly keeping you unnerved even when there doesn't seem to be anything disturbing happening on screen.

Of course, the question is: is this just a horror story? Is it just taking the witch stories of the Puritans more literally than most horror films do--there is a credit at the end stating that this film, which was clearly well-researched, used actual journal entries from the time period as the basis for its horrors--or is it making a grander statement? If it is, is that statement for or against the Puritans' fanaticism?

Certainly, you can make this a  case for an indictment of the exceptionally misogynistic patriarchy that characterizes fanatics of the Puritan strain. After all, we in the audience know that there is an actual witch in the woods preying on this family and something even more sinister living in their own barn*, yet each horror visited upon them focues the blame more and more on Thomasin, whom we know is innocent. Thomasin's only crime is being a teenage girl and the increasing persecution of her by her family surely dooms her soul far more effectively than the wicked creatures around the family could ever have done on their own.

[* The reveal that Black Phillip is, in fact, not just a goat might be considered a spoiler if he hadn't been so heavily emphasized in the film's promotions. So if you somehow weren't aware of that: sorry, not sorry]

It's not hard to view the film as condemning the parents at the heart of it for dooming their children and themselves by ascribing wickedness to natural human behavior--at one point William even pleads with God for mercy on his children for being unable to control their natural inclinations, but far too little and far too late. However, is is actually condemning them? While the film has actually been endorsed by the Satanic Temple of all things, some reviews have actually spoken of how sympathetic the film is to the Puritan family.

I viewed the film as showing how the misguided priorities of the family doomed them, but I was seeing it from the perspective of someone who has never been religious. I was raised by my parents as a Unitarian-Universalist, and encouraged to choose whatever I wanted to believe. Naturally, aside from brief periods where I invented my own pantheons or believed in Santa as some form of minor deity, I gravitated towards atheism.

Meanwhile, my viewing companion for this film had a perspective that could not be more different than mine. She may be a smartass, bisexual atheist now, but she was raised in a very conservative Christian environment that left her with many mental scars. She finds herself on the verge of a panic attack any time she steps foot in a church. To her, the film was frightening because it was so familiar and the film seemed to lean too close towards outright saying the Puritans had it right all along.

Of course, as I said before, how many horror films can be claimed to have basically said, "Hey, those assholes who went around killing innocent people actually were killing evil witches"? From the aforementioned Hocus Pocus to City of the Dead to Season of the Witch and, of all things, The Brainiac there is no shortage of films that posit that some of those witches were the real deal and were genuinely evil. So what makes The Witch different?

I would say it's the quality of the witches and the Puritans.

First off, these witches are frightening and inhuman creatures that are still recognizably human. That latter is especially noteworthy because despite a large amount of nudity in the film, this may be one of the least male gaze-intensive films I've ever seen. And it's not just that the witches we see naked are largely not conventionally attractive--because this is a film that presents us with characters whose bodies never come across as that far too perfect quality of most Hollywood nudity--it's that the nudity is never there to excite the heterosexual men in the audience. It is merely a function of the story and the camera never leers at its female characters, except when it is showing us the point of view of Caleb.

Secondly, in the case of both witches and Puritans, this film feels authentic in a way your average pilgrim cosplay horror film does not. There is a clear understanding of actual life for the Puritans, just as the witch lore is as "accurate" as it can be. The archaic dialogue also feels real in a way that too few period pieces manage.

Some of this is definitely on the cast, who are all terrific. Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson both feel authentic and intimidating as the heads of the family and all three of the child actors are excellent. A bad performance by Harvey Scrimshaw could have made Caleb just insufferable instead of the complicated character he becomes; and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson strike the perfect balance as the twins, not too aggravating and not too precious, either.

The real stand-out is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. While being constantly sympathetic, she still has enough subtle darkness in her performance that we can even begin to wonder if maybe her parents aren't so far off in their judgment. I really hope that this role leads to a lot more opportunities for her, because she is definitely a fantastic performer.

Every review of The VVitch is contractually obligated to include this promo still. I had to sign in a black Book and everything.
With all that going into the characters and film, and the rather removed quality the film has, it's hard to say what the filmmakers actually want you to feel about its characters. Sure, it wants you to be horrified of its supernatural terrors, but what about the mundane terror the Puritans represent? Ultimately, I think the movie wants you to decide--and that kind of ambiguity in its attitude towards such objectively awful people can be a hard thing to swallow.

In toto, The Witch is definitely a movie that sparks discussion. I have seen people rave about it, I have seen people slam it as awful, and when the lights came up on my viewing of it, both of the friends I invited along shot utterly bemused expressions my way and asked, "What the fuck did you just make us watch?" Yet, curiously, neither of them would say later that they hated it--in fact, they both found themselves thinking a lot on what they had seen.

So, in the end, this may not be a movie for everyone, but I am enthusiastically recommending it. Go see it, think about it, analyze the hell out of it with fan theories and what have you. There's no other film quite like it in today's cinematic landscape, and that alone is enough for me to say every horror fan should see it.

Even if for no other reason than to ponder the delightful possibility of a crass cash-grab sequel, The Witch 2: Return of Black Phillip, where everyone's favorite goat bedevils another community of Christian fanatics. "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"

"Wouldst thou like to host The 700 Club?"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reviewing this movie, it piqued my interest, and I tracked down a copy.

    A few thoughts:
    1. You could provide natural explanations for all the supernatural occurrences (ergot for the sabbat, etc.) and the plot would unfold exactly the same. With a little squinting, you could even argue that there were no witches at all--the witch sequences were the morbid imaginings of the family. At any rate, the witches weren't really "villains" so much as a serious of unfortunate events that, eventually, broke the family under the weight of its grief and paranoia.
    2. If there is a lesson regarding the Salem witch trials, it is, I think, that the Puritans would have killed innocents even if there had been real witches. Their paranoia, repression, and hypocrisy would have led them to turn on themselves, while the witches lived safely in the forests and laughed.
    3. Half way through the movie, I predicted that the witches weren't interested in destroying the family per se, but rather, in recruiting a new member (which just happened to require destroying the family). Called it!
    4. Its tricky to make a movie that works both as a supernatural horror movie and a non-supernatural horror movie, but Witch pulls it off beautifully.