“The closer you are to the light, the greater your shadow will be. ” – Xemnas, Kingdom Hearts II
This phrase is a clear representation of American history. The past of our great nation is saturated with revolutions, freedom and even technological advancements; but rarely do we consider the supernatural. Stories of haunted houses, possessed individuals and black magic that have yet to be proven only as myths. New England was a breeding ground for the supernatural. The wilderness was engulfing, there were constant quarrels with the native tribes and families struggled to no end against the elements. Out of these factors came the birth of American witchcraft, which eventually led to the infamous Salem Witch Trials. “The Witch” is a fictional intimate look at the panic caused by these trials. “The Crucible” is a classic representation of this dark time, “The Witch” bears obvious differences from the play. It was directed by Robert Eggers who, interestingly, in an interview said he is not a fan of horror film.
The film stars Ralph Ineson ( Death Eater Amycus Carrow, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn, Game of Thrones) and newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy (also starring Charlie as Black Phillip). “The Witch” was released February 19, 2016 in the U.S.A. It premiered earlier at the Sundance Festival where Eggers won Best Director.
“The Witch” revolves around a family living in 17th century New England. Ineson stars as William the father, his wife Katherine played by Dickie and their five children. Their eldest daughter Thomasin is played by Taylor-Joy. Through a series of horrific events, members of the family must put their faith in God and each other to the test.
I can admit this was a terrifying film. Eggers immediately won me over by not overloading exposition. This particular story is easily built because the audience is familiar with the time period. Any adult watching this movie has probably seen or read The Crucible, subsequently understanding the radical nature of the Salem Witch Trials. Eggers throws us directly into a story we already feel uncomfortable watching. He also doesn’t shy away from building tension early in the film. Most haunted movies these days rely on fodder characters to be the first victim. The Witch quickly proves that it is not like most horror movies. Samuel, the newborn, is kidnapped literally under the eyes of his sister. This single act changes the pace of the film. What looked to be a slow-building suspense thriller turns into a panic induced melodrama.
Another impressive factor was Eggers deciding to introduce a physical witch relatively early in the film. Knowledge of a witch solidified the audience’s imagination which causes them to focus on the individuals now. There is real reason for this family to be afraid. There is rising tension within the family due to betrayal, violence and forbidden sexual attraction. Halfway through the movie I almost forgot there was a witch until they introduced the supernatural again. The movie does well with not over saturating us with the fantastical, it turns our attention to those responding to the magic. In the possession scene, which I thought was well executed, we watch the family deal with their Caleb’s possession in the worst possible fashion. The twin children pretend to be under the spell of Thomasin, who jokingly called herself a witch. This innocent act from before turns out to be the first domino of trust to fall. Katherine uses this opportunity to turn against her daughter, who she resents for losing her newborn child. Instead of praying for Caleb, the older members are now accusatory and vicious. The “unbreakable” bond of family begins to break and the audience now must watch a once loving Puritan family react in a similar fashion found in “Lord of the Flies”. To me, this movie is a more intimate look at the effects of the Salem Witch Trials. It reduces the victims from an entire community to persons under the same roof. It also tests the bonds of the family, how much pain or betrayal is a member willing to endure for their loved ones and faith.
Throughout the movie the audience can feel the tension within the family, particularly the mother and father. Each parent has a different way of handling the stress of loss and survival. Katherine is constantly seen praying or reciting hymnals and when she does speak her words are filled with grief, anger or suspicion. William exerts his frustration in a violent fashion, by chopping at firewood. The symbolism in this film
is also apparent, William is interestingly enough buried under his firewood pile and Katherine’s headdress is removed by the end of her life.”Corruption, thou art my father”, William’s death was an especially powerful scene. After being gutted by Black Phillip, he picks up the axe in an attempt to kill the beast but instead drops it. While chopping wood William exerted against inanimate objects but this time when he has the opportunity to put his rage to use instead releases his weapon. It’s also interesting to note that Black Phillip was the one to kill William, the man was bested by the devil. Each character’s end focuses on who they were at the beginning. Caleb’s fear of God was countered by his monologue and his budding sexual desire is what got him hexed. Katherine, in her grieving, loses faith and turns to witchcraft without even knowing. The twins in their teasing are laughed at in the end. Thomasin, the lone survivor, becomes the creature she claimed to be in the beginning. Each character gets what they deserve throughout this movie.
The soundtrack, done by Mark Korven, enthralls the audience. His use of low-pitch string cords slowly builds agitation and unrest before the strings become spastic notes. They often compliment the wide shots of the wilderness; but they also work well with the tight quarters of the cabins. We’re occasionally greeted with an erratic repeating sound which represents the growing insanity within the family. It sounds as if flesh is constantly striking flesh, and not in a pleasurable manner. Drums can be heard in especially terrifying situations, reminding the audience of the time period and savagery.
The sound editors also went above and beyond by also incorporating silence at strategic points. During the scene with Caleb in the woods, we can see him hesitating at he nears the cabin. The sounds of the woods and footsteps are muted and instantly this realistic world becomes a realm of dark fantasy. Lastly, the music occasionally begins before the chaos ensues. It puts the audience on edge before the scene is even set. By doing this the viewer is never granted a true rest from the terror. I also liked the lack of major dialogue within the movie as well. The family talks only when it is required of them. The characters speak in accordance to the time period which proves difficult to understand at times, but it further enhances the reality of this movie. It also requires the audience to pay more attention, thus involving them even more. We can vividly imagine this New England family being plagued by witchcraft.
Blood has always been a central theme in any horror film. It’s interesting to note that the blood is an equally sacred and macabre symbol, depending on its usage. The lines get blurred during Caleb’s death, when he shrieks about the blood. One can’t tell if he’s talking about the blood of Christ or the blood of a witch but he claims to be covered by it. Interestingly the blood of the innocent seems to be even more of a trophy, we are introduced to the witch as she covers herself in the blood of the kidnapped new born. The blood of an innocent or virgin has been the subject for countless stories. The innocent blood kept the witches away until it was time for them to re-supply.
This was an interesting theme and topic. The Christian religion during the 17th century was very structured and, at times, maddening. We see this through the family’s unyielding devotion towards God throughout the movie. All the natural tragedies that befall them are in accordance with God, yet when a human wrongs them it is considered satanic. They view the work of the devil through people, not phenomenon. Another aspect about the faith is how it serves as a direct contrast to the black magic. We are exposed to chants and recitals in an unlikely way, Katherine’s obsessive praying substitutes for any potential witch curses. There are no wands or books associated with the witches, the source of their power remains a mystery, much like the family’s faith. I don’t remember seeing any crosses now that I think about it. The lack of recognizable symbols allows the blending of the two polar opposites. At times the viewer is unsure what religion is being viewed.
Certain animals were used to convey evil. The raven is an obvious figure and so is the goat but this role is important. Black Phillip is the black male goat on the farm. The giant beast calls the attention of viewers any time he is on screen. His build looks unnatural and he’s usually around when
trouble happens. The twins claim they talk with him, treating him like an imaginary character. Goats have been associated with witchcraft since it’s inception so the audience is already on edge when this goat appears. But “The Witch” goes above and beyond superstition. In the end, Black Phillip is revealed to be a vessel for the devil. By Eggers not focusing on the goat throughout the film. He does his best to avoid turning Black Phillip into a messenger of evil until it is time, a likely move by the devil. Even I was shocked when Thomasin’s question was answered. The director found a way to conceal the evil from a demonic subject until it was time to reveal his true nature. The rabbit is an unlikely creature seen in this film as well. ( I had to research this portion) but apparently the hare is significant to witchcraft because they are viewed as familiars that witches can turn into. Familiars are vessels (spirits or living) that can inhabit the soul of a witch or wizard, it’s similar to a transformation from man into beast.
If you’re looking for a horror movie that will expose you to jump scares or phantoms and floating furniture then this is not for you. It is a film that will scare you, but you won’t be afraid until the credits are over. You’re questions will be answered, but you won’t want to know the answers anymore. The whole film is meant to invoke a deeper sense of terror as opposed to the shock value we are used to these days. Horror movies like this are a breath of fresh air in a market that is overstuffed with possessed dolls or demonic children. There are elements of terror and a few frightening moments but overall the horror lies in the experience of the film.
Overall I would rank “The Witch” as one of the best horror films done in the past decade. Its a terrifying tale by not relying on myths and unexplained accounts but rather a realistic time period full of fear. The cinematography, done by Jarin Blaschke is wonderful, shots are long and the natural light invokes a sense of supernatural in this realistic world. As stated before the soundtrack did well to make the audience uncomfortable enough to truly focus on the visuals. Each character and their role is well executed, especially Katherine, who brought an extra degree of madness to already unstable film. I also like that the director voluntarily introduces witches, which no longer makes this a traditional horror movie where we’re doing more investigating of the supernatural. Most haunted house/possession movies tend to focus mainly on uncovering the origins of a ghost or spirit but interestingly enough The Witch inadvertently tells an origin story as well as a survival drama. At the end we are greeted with the birth of a witch. This unexpected outcome concludes a story, but leaves the door open for another. Do I expect a sequel? No, but I can imagine what the next family will go through in order to create a new witch. The Witch takes us on a journey through madness and death to discover that the birthplace of evil is not in the woods, but in the repressions in the heart of man.