#23: The Witch
Creepy colonial folk horror a reflection of modernity
Initial release: 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Imagine what America must have looked like to the early colonialists. Wild, untamed, and hostile to a bunch of white people who were too weird for Europe. Such is the backdrop for one of the tensest movies since John Carpenter’s The Thing.
In Robert Eggers’ The Witch (sometimes stylized with two Vs) a tiny cast of mostly unknowns populate a gloomy scenario of isolation and anxiety. Opening with an obstinate jackass getting his family kicked out of a Puritan colony over unspecified religious differences, they find a nice place to live and build a farm. It doesn’t go well. Things are fine at first, but soon the family’s baby son disappears into thin air. What follows is the family gradually falling apart under the stress and paranoia as more bad things happen, and the oldest daughter is increasingly isolated from the rest. The next-youngest children after the baby are a pair of creepy twins who frequently sing a weird song about the family goat, a huge black Baphomet-looking motherfucker who’s gotta be the most shifty-looking goat I’ve ever seen. And for good reason. It’s made abundantly clear that there’s something wrong out there in the woods. There is most definitely a witch in this film, or perhaps several; certainly, the two daughters of the family joke about being witches themselves, only to later accuse each other of same.
I won’t belabor my issue about the portrayal of witches, particularly as villains, in “witch panic” stories like this one; and anyway, it doesn’t really matter, because as much as the witch(es) may manipulate things from afar, the real villain here is paranoia and isolation. It’s worth remembering that the Puritans were afraid of the wilderness and what may lie in it, fearing that having to live distant from civilization would lead to spiritual savagery and exposure to the devil. With that in mind it’s easy to see how this family would unravel.
The father forbids his family from entering the woods, though he himself goes in to hunt; bad things happen to children who enter the woods. Only the eldest daughter, Thomasin, remains resolute, her faith the strongest, and yet she’s the most tormented by the family’s collapse.
A friend pointed out that if this movie had been made ten years ago, there probably wouldn’t even have been a real witch. While the film is less ambiguous on that point than I’d like, much of the rest of the film is far more laden in meaning. Much like another famous Colonial American witch story, The Crucible, there’s a political element to this film lurking beneath the dramatic surface. Stories about witches and witchcraft are always going to be stories about men’s fear of women, and women’s fear of themselves. Thomasin must endure multiple cruelties, from being accused by the twins of witchcraft, her parents turning on her (her father holds out longer than you’d expect, but even he tips over the edge,) even being blamed for her slightly younger brother’s staring at her chest.
In the end, she’s left with nothing to lose but her chains — and perhaps that’s the whole point. It’s a tale worthy of the gothic tradition, taking the explicit and building ambiguities upon it. It’s a wonder there aren’t more films like this, given how ripe the setting can be. Sadly, horror films set in Colonial America are extremely rare at best, and often fall short of the mark; this makes The Witch stand out all the more. The dialogue is expertly crafted (heavy research went into making it authentic.) The camera work is fantastic, and the editing makes great use of smash cuts (I love smash cuts!) The music also adds heavily to the ambience, alternating between generalized anxiety and abject horror, finally culminating in a haunting chorus during the credits (which are done up in the style of ending credits from the 1930s or 40s, with short lists fading in and out.) Shot in rural Ontario, the film makes certain to use gloomy weather to create a gloomy, oppressive atmosphere; it works. Past the opening, we see absolutely no sign of civilization; every moment spent outside the farm feels unsafe, and soon enough, the farm feels unsafe too.
In a great many ways, this film easily stands in the tradition of films like The Thing, with an isolated group, already on edge, completely unable to deal with threats from without or within. I’d heard good things about the film, but it far exceeded my expectations.