Monday, March 28, 2016

The Witch (2015)

As the lights went down for yet another weekday matinee movie screened exclusively for me, myself, and I, and as the images of pilgrims came out of the shadows to start the picture, I found myself wondering about the subcategory of witch movies within the broader horror ghetto. Whenever the deep forest environs of The Witch came to the fore—as important an element here as any—I was reminded immediately and repeatedly of The Blair Witch Project, and never of The Wizard of Oz, both of which appeared frequently in the lists I googled up later. Director and writer Robert Eggers is a relatively untried production designer with an abiding interest in fairy tales and the fantastic. The Witch comes with a gaudy subtitle—"A New-England Folktale"—that gives away the preoccupations with both the fantastic and the factually accurate. Set in 1630s Massachusetts wilderness, it pieces its story and even dialogue from period documents. It's soon established, for purposes of the movie, that at least one witch is real. A goat and other satanic appurtenances are also involved. In the story, a family of pilgrims—husband, wife, and their five children—chooses exile over murky disputed points of religion with a larger group. In this context, choosing exile can also be understood as a sin of pride. The family finds a patch of open land near a forest and begins to farm it. They caution one another never to enter the woods, it's a family rule, but of course at different times many of them saunter right in. The scenes inside the forest are gloomy, foreboding, and beautiful, and again, they hark to similar scenes in Blair Witch (albeit with steadicam this time). The father may or may not be a religious intellectual powerhouse, but he's otherwise inept. He can't farm and he can't hunt. The mother is exhausted and close to breaking down emotionally. All they have is work ethic. Of their children, the oldest girl and oldest boy are beginning to feel their sexuality. A boy and girl set of twins are somehow off. And last there's a newborn, Sam.

After some weeks or months there, calamity begins to descend on them. That's the arc here. No point going into specifics, you can see yourself, except to note that it's a very steady drumbeat of disaster. The period detail, the costuming and so forth, feels totally authentic, which is probably no surprise in a movie directed by a production designer. The language is formal English, with the odd locutions of the 17th century, many a "thee" and "thou" for example. I think what works best are the scenes obviously informed by the documentary "evidence": recorded legends, eyewitness accounts, and so forth. To be clear, certainly it's doubtful they ever happened. Those making testimony against witches all too often had ulterior motives or didn't like women or both. Still, it's a certain window into a contemporaneous view of what we now regard as superstition. The family members simply take it as given that they are locked in battle with dark forces, a remarkable view itself now. They instantly respond in kind, with prayers and supplications and such, on their knees, huddled in a circle. In one scene, the twins suddenly forget the words to the Lord's Prayer mid-session, and then go mute. Very close attention turns to one of the family's goats (as well it should). The Witch is reasonably spooky and shivery, and almost always restrained and quiet, though it gets to some pretty nasty places. At still another point, the oldest boy is in the woods by himself, breaking the family rule, and the witch appears to him as a beautiful, beautiful woman. She beckons him to come closer, come closer, and he does, he does. His whole trip only goes stranger from there. As with "standing in the corner" in Blair Witch, this is what's so scary about witches in the woods. You're liable to run into something that gets you in its power and tells you to do things, and you do them. Even when it's not in your best interest. The Witch is really pretty good.

1 comment:

  1. This film had such a consistently creepy atmosphere. It didn't need to rely on jump scares in order to be haunting.