a.k.a. “The VVitch: A New England Folk Tale,” as it said on the actual movie
Our beliefs on horror movies are very dear and personal to us. We were indoctrinated into them as children, performing rituals both in groups and in private. Though horror fans often think of themselves as one big group, different factions draw from different traditions. Some are strictly isolationist, while many draw from the Italians, or the Japanese, or even the French. Some have an Amish-like devotion to a specific bygone era, for example the Orthodox ’80s Slashists not only refuse to acknowledge the reformations of the SCREAM era, they don’t even believe in Blu-Ray.
There are many dogmas to adhere to or ignore. Some oppose jump scares, others welcome them to the flock. Many exalt franchise horror, but some consider sequeling a sin. Most oppose new remakes, but who doesn’t at least like THE THING? There is a wide spectrum, from those who seek the gore and transgression of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and GUINEA PIG to those who believe the best scares are always left to the imagination (of the viewer, not the filmmaker). In the middle are many who spent a few years fretting about “torture porn” and its hold on the genre. Or PG-13 teen horror. Or studio horror with big name actors. Or whatever.
Since the ’80s, horror has been both a highly specialized world for fangorian aficionados and a go-to market for squeezing quick bucks out of undiscerning young people. Therefore it should be no surprise that movies like THE WITCH that take a mood-heavy, narrative-light arthouse type of approach can be praised to the sky by critics and horror media, then called “the worst movie ever” by normal people who expect something different when they go to a horror movie. That they will get mad at the people who said it was good, and accuse them of thinking they’re stupid, which will then make them think they’re stupid. Lots of finger pointing. We could be moving toward burning and drowning.
I try to be non-denominational or agnostic. In UNIVERSAL SOLDIER terms I love DAY OF RECKONING, but I lean REGENERATION. I skew a little commercial, but I get a good laugh from IMDb bulletin board outrage. They’re angry at the availability of slow burn art horror the way their parents were about porno mags and heavy metal albums with satanic symbols on the covers.
That’s the divide in the horror community right now, the one between people who consider a movie like THE WITCH worth their time and the people that get angry at it. There’s even been debate about whether it counts as a horror movie. It’s about a witch killing a baby. Of course it is. How is this even a discussion? Obviously the people who think that should broaden their horizons and get more out of life and art, but also I kinda get where they’re coming from. A big part of the appeal of a horror movie is in your gut. You want to be scared or shocked or thrilled, you want your heart pumping. I’m sure you can get into the right mind space to be terrified by this movie, but I can’t. I enjoyed it intellectually, not viscerally. I admired how well it was made. Then it ended and I turned it off.
I didn’t find it scary like some people, I didn’t find it meaningful like some people, so what does that leave? Just the idea of it being very accurate to the “New England folk tale” beliefs about witches. A gimmick, basically. And if you think that’s all it is it’s easy to wonder why can’t it be kind of fun to watch? A little less ANTICHRIST and a little more DRAG ME TO HELL?
But I wouldn’t be thinking that if the thing scared me, and I think this comes back to our upbringing. Exorcisms, ghosts, devils and witches are more popular than masked killers or mutant cannibals these days, but I just don’t react as strong to horror with a standard religious basis. It shouldn’t matter, because it’s all fiction, even when the ad campaigns claim they’re true stories. But for me, a primal fear like “that guy’s trying to stab me!” is way more potent than “that bullshit that the charlatans convince gullible people to believe in is REALLY HAPPENING!” I think the level of scariness is enhanced for people who have a deep, ingrained belief in ghosts, demons, Hell, or satan worship.
THE WITCH is a little different. This one is not adapted from a specific “true story,” but from old superstitions that were used to persecute and sometimes execute women who didn’t fit in. Writer/director Robert Eggers goes out of his way to be accurate to the beliefs of the period, even supposedly taking dialogue out of journals.
It’s a beautifully crafted movie with excellent performances by the entire cast, especially the young kids. It paints a portrait of a father (Ralph Ineson, Game of Thrones) who stubbornly moves his family out of a settlement due to religious conviction. They live in a cabin on the edge of the woods, and it’s not as easy to get food as they’d like. He has to hide from his wife (Kate Dickie, PROMETHEUS, Game of Thrones) that he’s taking his son Caleb (the excellently named Harvey Scrimshaw) into the woods to learn how to hunt. She thinks the woods are dangerous, and she’s right.
One day oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peekaboo with her baby brother when suddenly he disappears. Most movies would keep it mysterious what happened, this one soon shows a witch (Bathsheba Garnett, P2) caressing and then… doing worse to the poor baby. I have to confess, it looked to me like she was supposed to be jerking off the baby for a second, which I’m against. Luckily, I’m told she was merely churning his guts and turning the fat into magic flying oil. (I guess she’s seen WARLOCK.)
A friend mentioned that she then straight up flies away on a broom, which I did not catch at all. I had to study the Youtube clip to see that that is apparently going on in a shot that I thought was just her walking in slow motion with the moon above. If they had made it clear she was flying away on a broom (especially if they did it with an obvious miniature) I would’ve liked this movie about five times more than I did.
You know what, there is one part that I gotta say I did find scary. It’s basically an EXORCIST type scene with Caleb in bed freaking out and they’re trying to pray the witch out of him, and he goes through a whole thing of being possessed and then being a meek innocent kid again and then up and dying. And that kid is so little and so convincing in all this (and I think maybe it’s one long shot?) so it’s a tour-de-force of a scene that really pulls you in.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke gives it a strong look. At first I thought it was one of these movies that has almost no color and why don’t they just have the balls to make it black and white? But I came to appreciate the look, there is some color in there, it’s just very, very light. There’s a beautiful shot of the family’s wagon exiting the settlement, leaving a thriving community (with some Native Americans walking by, even) behind. From that point on they’re isolated.
The story draws off of traditional fears like isolation and nature. These people are old timey, they can rough it better than we can, but do they really have what it takes to survive out there? Do they know what they’re getting into?
There’s also a younger sister and brother (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) who say that their goat, Black Philip, talks to them. Goats are fucking creepy. The idea of these weird little shits having conversations with one is fucking creepy. These are the kinds of scares we get, not many of the big ones. It’s about the slow building of a mood. I have talked to some people who found it incredibly boring. I didn’t.
Huge plot hole: why didn’t Vin Diesel come and solve this problem in like 1 minute.
I’ve stated my objection many times to movies that portray witches as an actual danger in these period pieces, because they’re creating a fantasy that justifies the actual real life scapegoating and murder of random innocent women. It’s sort of like if there was a horror movie about a trans woman who goes into women’s restrooms to assault little girls. We wouldn’t be happy about that, right? It’s fiction, but it’s fiction that perpetuates some bullshit dreamt up by sick assholes who don’t deserve to have their weird fantasies perpetuated.
Well, here we are again.
I guess I misunderstood the beginning, I thought the colony were being judgmental of the family’s Christianity, and the dad was like “fuck this” and that’s why they left, so I really sided with them. But from reading up on it I guess maybe dad was in trouble for trying to out-Puritan the other Puritans. We definitely side with Thomasin, though, as she stands up against false accusations of witchcraft, by her own family no less. It’s all hysteria and stupidity and adults believing a ridiculous thing said by little kids. Thomasin tries to tell them that they should know better.
But in the reality of the movie the superstitious ninnies were right. All of their backwards beliefs are 100% correct. (SPOILER) Even while testifying to her innocence Thomasin doesn’t know that she kinda is The Witch. She’s gonna kill her whole family and then, like, do some kind of spooky floating witch magic ambiguous ending type shit or whatever. The family really shouldn’t have left the church, they really should’ve stayed out of the woods, there really was a witch there, she really was a danger to their baby, her sexuality really did lure and kill men, and Thomasin really was involved in witchcraft, even without knowing it. In the world of this movie, they should’ve shut the fuck up and done what they were told.
I doubt that message is intentional, and if it is it’s okay for movies to come from different perspectives. But it’s like a very beautiful and artful lecture about how I’m bad because I’m not going to church enough. Good job, but I’m not gonna record it and listen to it when I need a lift.
Earlier I made it sound like THE WITCH is a love it or hate it movie, but I’m actually kind of a moderate on this one. I enjoyed it and I was impressed by its craft, but to me it feels empty. I know many people who love it think it has alot to say, so let me explain myself.
To me alot of the best “serious” horror movies work partly because they have a little truth behind the scares. When we watch A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET we understand why the best intentions of the parents could go too far, leaving a secret shame with unintended consequences. We recognize the feeling of kids having to pay for what their parents did long ago, or parents fearing this happening to their kids. And the idea of knowing something, but no one believes you, so you’re on your own.
When we watch THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or THE HILLS HAVE EYES we recognize that class tension, city vs. rural, the assumptions each side make about the other, and the assumptions they make about the assumptions each others make.
In THE WITCH there’s much of this truth in how she’s treated. Their prejudices cause them to use flimsy evidence against her because it fits their crazy world view. She makes a joke and it gets preposterously treated as a confession. Her dad is willing to accept the word of two little kids against hers, even though what they’re saying is patently ridiculous.
So what happens at the end, I mean, it’s cool on the surface, but for me it feels a little hollow because it sort of takes the truth out of the story. It says yeah, actually the misogynistic puritanical world order is correct. Those strange women are churning our babies, seducing our sons, stealing our daughters.
I explained this misgiving to one of my buddies who loved THE WITCH and he had a good interpretation: that yes, what I describe is true, but this is the story of how all that suspicion and unfairness would make a girl want to become a witch. Well, fuck it. What other option do I have now? Let’s steal some babies. A self-fulfilling prophecy. A snake eating its tail.
I like that, but I’m still left with a world where non-conformist women endanger babies. That doesn’t stop this from being a really good movie, but it does keep me from totally loving it.
Recommendation for sequel: VVARLOCK, a remake of WARLOCK with Thomasin in the Julian Sands role of a witch in present day America.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.