The Witch (2016) Review

As some of you glamour-pusses may recall, a few months previously I put forward my completely speculative trailer breakdown of Robert Eggers' cinematic debut period horror (grow up) The Witch: A New England Folk Tale which I demonstrated great enthusiasm which you can find by clicking HERE. Was that starry-eyed, bubbly optimism warranted? Read on! Please.

Allow me to be honest you from a personal standpoint, I can safely say The Witch is one of my favourite films of the year. Good lord. While I won't say the film is Poo Poo Pants City scary, it is chilling, eerie and disturbing and that to me makes for an effective film. It is indeed a slow burn and it can be muddlesome in the second act due to pacing issues, but a vast majority of it is a build up which leads to an undisputed pay-off and what pay-offs they are.

Everything about this film looks, sounds and most importantly feels genuine thanks in no small part to Eggers' eye and interest of the epoch the story takes place as well as the talented hands he has working alongside his. All of his years of research, planning and honing his craft paid off and if there was any doubt this new kid on the block could perform, those doubts may kindly be dismissed. The Witch is an masterclass in building and sustaining atmosphere even if nothing abjectly horrifying is taking place, you are always under the impression something heinous is lurking just behind the corner. I don't know about anybody else, but there was also a subtly Lovecraftian sensation to the film based on the notion of the evil that you don't see and don't understand which is more horrifying than what you do. Every frame is saturated with a depressing shade of grey, but it is never boring and uninteresting, instead it encourages that sensation of foreboding when you remember this family are away from civilization and are gradually being torn down by forces inside and outside of their control. Toward the end of the film however, there are images of which will no doubt unapologetically sear themselves into your very grey matter and you will not forget them. Lets just say it gets supremely ruinous.

Thematically speaking, it truly does live up to it's subtitle A New England Folk Tale because while there are certainly supernatural events taking place, the story always comes back to the people involved, namely the character of Thomasin who very quickly becomes the object of contempt within her family. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a performance which throws down the gauntlet as Thomasin and I was intensely amazed at how strongly she stood toe-to-toe with her veteran peers Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. The remaining three child actors, Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the petulant twins deliver admirably, particularly Scrimshaw. Without giving too much away in regards to his characters' journey, Caleb becomes a man in several ways, some of them distinctly less savory and the frightening part is, he knows the magnitude of his sin.

Generally speaking, The Witch abides by not only the historical opinions of witchcraft from the Puritan era but in a sense it is a wicked, cautionary fairy tale much in the same vein of the Brothers Grimm which covers the crisis of belief, crisis of identity and the horrors of coming of age in a world where change is seen as something sordid.
Let me put it this way- at the beginning of the film the family is excommunicated from their village due to the nature of the proud, stubborn patriarch William (Ineson) who thinks himself higher than his fellow parishioners. He takes his family out into the untold wilderness of New England in order to build his own place of worship, that being a farm, a place where he foolishly believes he holds sway. As time goes on, as the isolation sets in and as the crops fail, the profane within the family steadily comes to be the sacred. The father will not repent his pride, the mother will not listen to her children and the children will not be afforded the love, moral education and protection they need. This is a story about familial trauma, a unit being ripped apart by the dark side of belief.

I don't believe I am making a revolutionary statement by saying this, but I have noticed some people out there have dismissed this element of the film for pushing a feminist agenda to which I retort with two things;

1) So?
2) You do realise that while the witch trials claimed the lives of quite a few innocent men, women were the ones who chiefly shouldered the blame, correct? Keep in mind, the hateful tome of the Malleus Maleficarum published in 1486 by the upstanding gentleman known as Heinrich Kramer
specifically pointed the finger at women when it came to dealings with the Devil- orgies, sacrifice, Sabbats, basically if you had a vagina you were seen as inherently evil and the Devil's Whore. There is no accounting for the senseless murder of human life, but the insidious misogyny that was around at this time was nobody's imagination- it really happened and it was one of the the worst chapters of human civilization. The Witch brings this point front and center by displaying this fear and presenting it as the ridiculous phenomenon it always was. Allow me to share with you one such paragraph of Kramer's book which covers why women were supposedly more susceptible to 'evil superstitions'-

There is also, concerning witches who copulate with devils, much difficulty in considering the methods by which such abominations are consummated. On the part of the devil: first, of what element the body is made that he assumes; secondly, whether the act is always accompanied by the injection of semen received from another; thirdly, as to time and place, whether he commits this act more frequently at one time than at another; fourthly, whether the act is invisible to any who may be standing by. And on the part of the women, it has to be inquired whether only they who were themselves conceived in this filthy manner are often visited by devils; or secondly, whether it is those who were offered to devils by midwives at the time of their birth; and thirdly, whether the actual venereal delectation of such is of a weaker sort. But we cannot here reply to all these questions, both because we are only engaged in a general study, and because in the second part of this work they are all singly explained by their operations, as will appear in the fourth chapter, where mention is made of each separate method. Therefore, let us now chiefly consider women; and first, why this kind of perfidy is found more in so fragile a sex than in men. And our inquiry will first be general, as to the general conditions of women; secondly, particular, as to which sort of women are found to be given to superstition and witchcraft; and thirdly, specifically with regard to midwives, who surpass all others in wickedness.

        As for the first question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men; it is indeed a fact that it were idle to contradict, since it is accredited by actual experience, apart from the verbal testimony of credibly witnesses. And without in any way detracting from a sex in which God has always taken great glory that His might should be spread abroad, let us say that various men have assigned various reasons for this fact, which nevertheless agree in principle. Wherefore it is good, for the admonition of women, to speak of this matter; and it has often been proved by experience that they are eager to hear of it, so long as it is set forth with discretion.
        For some learned men propound this reason; that there are three things in nature, the Tongue, an Ecclesiastic, and a Woman, which know no moderation in goodness or vice; and when they exceed the bounds of their condition they reach the greatest heights and the lowest depths of goodness and vice. When they are governed by a good spirit, they are most excellent in virtue; but when they are governed by an evil spirit, they indulge the worst possible vices.
Anybody else want to roll their eyes so far they fall out of their sockets?

For the record, no, I personally don't believe The Witch is strictly a feminist statement, but more of an education and a condemnation of the behavior that was prevalent at the time. Although the film makes it alarmingly clear and rather early on that there is a witch lurking out in the woods beyond the family's property and she is as mean as the sun is bright, the true horror resides within the attitudes of the main characters.

The Witch is certainly not without its flaws but I find they depend more on individual experience as opposed to faults within the film itself. During the prolonged second act, the pacing of the movie slows down to favor the interior anxieties of the characters more than the external horror. I didn't think this was necessarily a bad thing given the strongly psychological angle the film chooses, but between the heady first and final act, I can understand why some members of the audience felt a disparity in the action. I feel the best way to approach the film is to do so with patience, because these days, films tend to be sold more on the impact of their trailers than themselves and in the case of The Witch, it was definitely cut to look more like an up-front horror than the deeply disturbing and organ-penetrating psychological chiller it actually is. By the by, did I feel the language and dialect in the movie was a detriment? No, because while it may sound alien to begin with, if you pay attention to actions the characters take and come to understand their motivations, that barrier is quickly knocked down. Besides, the best element of fear is that fear is universal, no matter where or who you are, when you see another human being afraid and are privy to the cause of their terror, it is something you recognise, something you know.

The Witch is a richly realised study of human fear and anxiety. Although there are some truly visually gruesome moments in the film, what will ultimately impact upon you will be the intangiable yet all too familiar horror of what it is like to be alone, uncertain and unsure of who you are, fear of the devils beyond the warm touch of the light and the devils which prowl within you.

Oh, and by the way, Black Phillip deserves the Best Goat Acting award. Don't argue with me.

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  1. EXCELLENT review,, Lady Lilith! Probably the best one I've read for this film.