The Witch (2015)


It was a year or two ago that I was reading an article that mentioned The Witch, The Babadook and a number of other modern horror films, largely exploring if these films were actually horror.  While many people have no problem with a movie like Don't Breathe or Hostel being considered horror films, despite the lack of anything remotely supernatural happening, there has been a growing argument that films that may, or may not, play a bait and switch with their monster are not to be included.

I call goat droppings here.

Horror is a state of mind.  I defy someone to tell me they would be less scared running from a masked, immortal killer than they would be stuck in a confined, locked space with a crazed meth-head with a knife.  I would also say that it would help looking back on your childhood.  You knew deep down many things you feared in the darkness were not real, yet just the possibility of it being real was frightening enough. 

Scared is scared, and there was a time - a very short time ago, given the span of things - when some of the most frightening things the human brain could conjure possibly lived in the darkness, out in the woods.  Certainly, there were many things there that could do you harm, but the possibility of things beyond your comprehension - things that could take your very soul down the pits of hell - was enough to scare the godliness right back into anyone who had to stare out into that darkness night after night.

William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their family came over to the New World from England to settle and start a new life.  They find themselves banished from the colony itself and forced to live and farm on their own.  Things are moderately successful for a short time, but this all changes when their baby Samuel (Axton Henry Dube / Athan Conrad Dube) is stolen by a witch (Bathsheba Garnett) while in the care of his sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). 

As the corn starts to rot with mold and ergot in the fields and Katherine is heavily overcome with grief, William begins to fear that the family will starve come winter and trades Katherine's silver chalice, an heirloom from her father, for traps so he can get pelts to trade.  He takes his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) into the woods over his mother's wishes, but comes up empty on both pelts and animals.  Katherine does notice the cup missing and blames Thomasin, despite her protestations that she had nothing to do with it.

The two younger siblings, Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), become increasingly unruly, to the point where Thomasin pretends to be a witch to frighten Mercy into behaving.  It doesn't help that the two believe that a goat in their stable named Black Phillip is talking to them.

Caleb decides to go out on his own to hunt and check the traps, and Thomasin demands to come with him.  The trap is more successful, but when Caleb spots a hare that his father failed to bag earlier, he takes off in pursuit along with the family dog.  The horse Thomasin is riding throws her and runs off, leaving her unconscious.  Caleb finds the dog disemboweled, but continues after the hare until he comes upon a house in the woods.  There, he is seduced by a the witch, glamoured to look younger. 

The family becomes desperate in their search for Caleb, with Katherine becoming even more furious with Thomasin.  While a storm rages, Caleb shows back up at the farm, naked and feverish, and apparently bewitched.  Mercy and Jonas accuse Thomasin of being the witch responsible, which she denies, but then she finds herself accused by both her mother and father.   While her siblings start showing signs of being bewitched themselves, Caleb succumbs and passes away.  William blames his children, locking them in a barn with Black Phillip. 

While Thomasin defiantly tries to prove she is not a witch, the family falls apart, and it does seem more and more that a Satanic influence has come over the farm.

I can honestly see how this movie may be open to several interpretations.  Director Robert Eggers certainly left it open, even if he has stated that what you see is literally supposed to be what is happening.  That doesn't really solve anything, because what you see happening could just as literally be an hallucination brought by the mold on the corn or the state of religious tyranny and fear that William enforces upon his family.  Religion has been proven to be just as much a high for some as drugs, alcohol or gambling, and when driven into such a state it is not hard to become paranoid that everything around you might be evil.  That very thing drove a wave of hysteria in New England only a few decades forward form the time this movie takes place.

Without spoiling anything, it is quite possible that nothing supernatural happens throughout.  The way witches are portrayed are the way they would have been drilled into children's heads by fairy tales and dire warnings largely meant to keep them under control and from wandering off.  None of the adults see the hag that the children see, but instead base their belief that Thomasin, or the twins, may be witches based on their own religious tradition.  When the devil does appear, both to Katherine and Thomasin, it is in ways that are pleasing to both, and not some pitchfork-wielding demon.

Starvation, exposure, fever and contaminated food, combined with the power of belief, could have torn the family asunder as easily as Lucifer himself.  Of course, it could also be the daughters of Satan cavorting naked around a bonfire at night.  I know that some pagans will have a major problem with the witches being portrayed in such a way, but keep in mind this movie was based on folklore, not truth. 

The decision to film largely in natural light (there are a few notable exceptions) was a beautiful one.  I have heard the film being described as too dark in places, but I like it that way.  I typically photograph in natural light, and find the medium more appealing than other means.  It was wonderful to see an entire movie with the dark, rich colors that bright daylight, cloudy skies or crepuscular rays can form on film.  I was also rather impressed by how well candlelight actually worked to light up a dark house - despite the obvious "fire in a wood and straw structure" problem.

I did have a few problems with the narrative structure, which I found to be the weakest part of the movie.  It's really quite a simple story, but is told in quite an episodic style.  It also gets a bit too simplistic with the religious aspects, and I think some of the modern prejudices against Christianity creep in.  Yes, there were those religious to the point of insanity (which is why the British, and the Dutch, were quite happy to see the Puritans head on out to a new land; they had made a mess of England during Cromwell's reign), but there were just as many that came to the New World because it promised them a life they could not have in the old one. 

Anya Taylor-Joy manages quite well as a devoutly religious girl coming into her womanhood and suddenly having to deal with being accused of everything that goes against her belief system.  Ralph Ineson, with his deep, rolling voice, is the epitome of manliness and self-sufficiency as William, even though a certain ineptness and rottenness hides within him.  Kate Dickie has already proven she can play insane quite well as Lysa Arryn on Game of Thrones, and Katherine emerges as Thomasin's true nemesis as the movie unfolds.

The biggest surprise is not Taylor-Joy, but rather Harvey Scrimshaw.  Of any role his is the one that is most difficult, and he does a terrific job both being a boy who feels forced to become a man, and as a true believer getting his just reward.  His death scene should be regarded as one of the best acting examples from a younger star in a long time.

There were many things to like in The Witch, even though I wasn't as overwhelmed with it as many were.  At least, when it came to being hyped, it didn't fall flat like The Blair Witch Project did.  As for whether or not it is horror, I would again ask: if your family is dying around you, and you may be next, either from starvation or at the hand of demonic forces, do you really care which it is?  Fear is fear.  Death is death.  Minor details, in the end, are quite irrelevant.

The Witch (2015)
Time: 92 minutes
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Director: Robert Eggers

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