Given her popularity at Halloween, in kid and YA culture (The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter), and in productions of Macbeth, the witch has been surprisingly scarce in the horror movie.1 Certainly, she makes far fewer appearances than vampire, zombie, werebeast, mad slasher, or lab-made monster.
The most discussed horror film of 2016 makes some amends by casting the traditional witch as its villain. As of this writing, The Witch has an overwhelmingly positive reputation among critics at Rotten Tomatoes-- and barely 60% approval among general audiences. Why has this film cast a spell on some, while leaving others feeling burnt?
Certainly, a film for an audience that occupies the Venn overlap among horror fans, history buffs, and festival hipsters will not appeal to everyone. The period dialect alone will alienate some viewers. Ultimately, however, I believe The Witch leads its audience to a place where not everyone wants to or even can follow.
The story takes place in the early 1600s. An isolated New England family, two of whose children have entered adolescence, experience social, psychological, religious, and supernatural malignancies. We're drawn into a worldview and world long dead. The actors speak period English, and affirm the characters' beliefs with beguiling sincerity. The mise en scène has been skillfully created, and blends natural detail with nightmarish apparitions. The imagery has been drawn from actual historic sources, testimony imagined, elicited, and coerced regarding the doings of witches. Once we accept the situation, The Witch slowly destroys the characters' understanding of their world, as it asks us to question ours.
Although the film features literal witches, the plagues that beset the family start long before the first supernatural visitation, and may suggest different social and psychological evils to different viewers. Brother Caleb, for example (and, just possibly, father William) take a little too much interest in eldest daughter Thomasin's burgeoning sexuality. After the disappearance of the family's youngest, the members of the family wonder if Thomasin has signed a pact with Satan. We know she hasn't-- but, given the choices she faces, we start to wonder if maybe that isn't her best option.
The film has been cast perfectly, a fact made more remarkable by the number of young people, and the challenges of period dialect. Teenage Anya Taylor-Joy stands out as doubting Thomasin. And while the rest of the family rightly have been lauded by critics for their emotionally-resonant performances, Bathsheba Garnett feels disturbingly real in her few appearances. (I am also somewhat curious how on earth Eggers directed young Harvey Scrimshaw in the scene where he relives his film-mother's erotic dreams about Jesus. That had to be a difficult one to fly to an adolescent boy).
The film moves slowly, and grows increasingly tense and disturbing. Writer/director Sam Eggers and his crew make excellent and restrained use of (mainly, at least) physical effects, and the soundscape definitely adds to the film's disturbing atmosphere. The Witch prefers to gradually invade its viewers' minds, making only minimal use of gore and jump-scares. It then ends with a conclusion that has become a topic of some controversy.
I actually like the ending. The film draws much of its power by taking early colonial American beliefs about witchcraft at their word. Yes, a less literal script might have been more effective but, given its premise, there were few other ways the film could finish.
But many viewers will find the conclusion, both literal and ambivalent, disappointing. The matinee group with whom I shared the theatre were less enthusiastic than most critics have been, and two women actually stalked afterwards through the lobby loudly telling complete strangers not to see The Witch, and assuring the bewildered teenage concession clerks that the film "isn't their fault."
The Witch will provoke such reactions.
Written and directed by Robert and Sam Eggers
Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin
Ralph Ineson as William
Kate Dickie as Katherine
Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb
Ellie Grainger as Mercy
Lucas Dawson as Jonas
Bathsheba Garnett as the Old Witch
Sarah Stephens as the Young Witch
Julian Richings as Governor
Wahab Chaudhry as Black Phillip
Some Old Goat as Black Phillip
1. The silent era gave us Häxan aka The Witches aka Witchcraft Through the Ages. Hammer Studios briefly tapped the genre in the 1960s, while the YA crowd had The Craft in the 1990s. The Blair Witch Project seems like it should count, though its central monster (apart from nausea-inducing camerawork) acts more like a malignant spirit.
Part of the problem lies in determining which films qualify. Do Satanic cult flicks, such as Rosemary's Baby count as witch movies? I also wonder about the various incarnations of Carrie and Ringu, movies depicting the popular concept of a witch in all but name.