By Dan Poorman
We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us!
William, The Witch
Sorry, Will, but it totally does. Haven’t you seen Antichrist? “Nature is Satan’s church,” after all. And so too was my neighborhood cinema this past weekend—in fact, never before has the back row of an in-mall Regal theater felt so much like the belly of a swampy, uninviting forest. And I suppose that’s saying a lot.
My favorite Witch sound bite–one that truly does this deliciously disturbing film justice–comes from Drew McWeeny, for HitFix. He writes, “It feels like we’re watching something…we should not be seeing.” (The ad campaign for The Witch took that and ran with it, understandably). Last year, on this very blog, I wrote that The Babadook was more or less the old “car crash” adage on film. This year, I’m issuing a correction. The Witch is that, and so much more. In essence, it’s a 20-vehicle pileup: the first couple hits signal that familiar, innocent sense of morbid curiosity, but by the end of it all you’re overwhelmed with concern and, ironically enough in this case, probably muttering “Jesus Christ” on loop.
I speak so dramatically of this film because it really is no fun—and that is not to its detriment. Robert Eggers, in an almost unbelievable debut as writer-director, has given us a masterpiece of horror in its most primeval sense. We are dealing with 1600s New England here, an utterly tragic time and place in American history which most of us associate with the famed Salem witch trials, no matter how skewed they may appear in the pages of our high school textbooks. The family at the center of The Witch takes a lash from their tyrannical preoccupation with fundamentalist beliefs when they are banished from their own Puritan community at the film’s opening—and when they settle a farm on the outskirts of a treacherous wood, this wound only opens further.
The family is ultimately destroyed by their own superstitions. In the wake of her unbaptised infant son’s sudden disappearance, Katherine (Kate Dickie) begins to resent her eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who in turn becomes a scapegoat for father William (Ralph Ineson), a prideful man who has secretly traded his wife’s precious silver for hunting purposes when the family’s crops shrivel and die—a curse, Katherine suspects. Meanwhile, middle child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), already distraught over his brother’s assumed exile to Hell, struggles with temptation in the form of Thomasin’s bosom, and later, the toxic kiss of a witch.
And yes, there’s Black Phillip, the family’s billy goat who, according to twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), has been speaking to them about some less-than-savory matters (read: Satan).
This clan’s flaws, apparent from the get-go, play like unrelenting itches for audience members. The introduction of the twins and their goat pal, in particular, made me squirm in my seat. Black Phillip (performed by a truly remarkable goat actor whom I predict will get the All-American Chris Pratt treatment in due time), runs maniacally about the place as Mercy and Jonas sing a tune about how they’re literally his chosen servants. Katherine, however, is more concerned with her missing silver wine cup and the alibis of William and Caleb, who have just returned from an unsuccessful hunt in the demonic forest, to interrogate the twins about their bizarre declarations. Both parents and the twins eventually place blame on Thomasin for the deaths of Baby Samuel and Caleb when they pronounce her a witch.
Where this film distinguishes itself from the traditional drama of The Crucible is in the depiction of the real witch of the wood, played by one Bathsheba Garnett (Where are all my Conjuring fans? High-five me). This savage supernatural woman, who nonchalantly swoops down from the sky, abducts little Samuel in broad daylight and then murders him that evening, is our central family’s next-door neighbor, though Katherine in particular insists by the film’s conclusion that Thomasin, her own daughter, is the one indebted to the Devil.
What Miller may have been saying about sacrifice and the naming of names in the quiet of his iconic play is kicked up a notch in this much bolder and bloodier straight-up horror film. The witch, and the obsessive, colloquiual “hunting” thereof, obstructs the accuser’s view of a terrifying reality: that true, transcendent evil does its gory work in the shadow of a terrestrial squabble. When Katherine attempts to kill Thomasin, this daughter, out of animal instinct, first must extinguish her mother—but then, with no remaining human being to turn to, has no choice but to walk into the dark and become the witch—like a girlfriend badgered by a jealous boyfriend, first out of the relationship, and then into the very one the accuser once so vehemently maintained.
In The Witch‘s chilling climax, Thomasin’s rebound dude is Lucifer, and her desperate acclimation to the darkness can be seen in a particularly poignant sequence where she retreats inside her family’s home, falls asleep at a table and awakens in the nighttime. Thomasin, unfazed, signs her name in the Devil’s book and follows him to a wood illuminated by a fiery Walpurgisnacht celebration, and in the film’s most striking and obvious display of the fantastical, she begins to levitate along with her newfound dark sisters. It’s an ending that does to the woods what Jaws did to the ocean, as cliché as that sounds (Listen, I don’t care because it’s true—and if you’re asking me, it’s all the more reason to do a woodland screening of The Witch, à la this immersive screening of the 1975 shark flick).
Now, if you’ve been reading critics’ reactions to The Witch, you might have come across a bunch of chatter about general audiences being generally terrible—and in particular, this concept of “horror gatekeepers” and overhyping. While in some sense it is elitist to dismiss the genius of formative low-budget, retro video store-friendly slasher fare the likes of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is also elitist to rely entirely on their formulas as universal horror law. Worse, even, are people who actually don’t care about movies, or about moviemaking, and just expect a limpdick popcorn product full of (buzz word!) “jump scares.” (I love The Witch because it doesn’t jump; it crawls). You know, I’m talking about a big-budget Blumhouse movie that’s not as intellectually challenging as it is a CGI-laden, two-hour recess for our most primal urges because work sucks and we finally got a sitter. Yay, escapism. Let’s go home and sleep now.
If you’ve got a stomach, The Witch will quickly unsettle it, and it’ll stay that way until the film is over, and maybe into your next day if Eggers and his crew are lucky. Likewise, your brain will be on fire. You will begin to think about religion and the destruction of the Aristotelian soul in a way that maybe you had not before. The film contains the most organic possession scene I have ever watched, and it has forever changed the way I will look at that particular subgenre.
Really, folks: Who needs a Mercedes McCambridge overdub when Ralph Ineson’s voice sounds naturally monstruous? Who needs a computer-animated demon when you’ve got a real, hyperventilating goat? Who said witches were green-skinned, slightly friendly-looking Halloweentime eraser toppers? No. Eggers’ witch is an old, naked lady who will mortar and pestle your baby brother into broom lube.
Yes, The Witch is an indie movie. An arthouse flick. Whatever you want to call it. Yes, it was a festival darling—just like the other two members of that recent indie horror triumvirate, The Babadook and It Follows—and it is part of such a trend in the genre. It requires thought, attention; maybe even a little studying or a second or third watch. If you’re not down with that, you are not a horror fan. This genre needs room to grow and it needs more respect. Films like The Witch—daring, $1 million budget projects (peddled wide by an equally daring and stylish distributor) with well-researched, nuanced scripts; at once bleak and beautiful direction and photography; quietly powerful performances and minimalist, razor sharp, dread-inducing scores that’d make Bernard Herrman spill his drink—deserve their place in horror history.
And I don’t care if you hated this movie. I could throw you in the woods for a night and I bet it wouldn’t take long before you’d call me up weeping.
In the immortal words of The Mountain Goats (here’s to you, Phillip!), “Hail Satan!”
Watch this trailer for The Witch, aptly titled “Paranoia”: