The Witch (2015, 1 hr 32 mins.)
The hype machine has created yet another horror frenzy with the 2015 festival favourite, The Witch. Much like the Salem Witch Trials, hysteria surrounding this film snowballed, spreading stories of disturbing scenes and terror throughout the festival circuit. I myself wrung my hands in despair when I couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out screening at TIFF this past summer, feeling like I was missing the horror film of the year. What emerged from the frenzy was a question about what creates horror in a film, and an apparent polarizing of horror fans.
Set in 1630, a puritanical family is banished from a communal plantation for their religious beliefs and claim a place for themselves in a remote forest valley. The family experiences a horrible setback when their infant son vanishes under his adolescent sister Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) watch. They are under great stress as the crops fail, food is scarce, and they grieve the loss of the baby. Suspicions soon take hold as the family suspect Thomasin is a witch, and when her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) disappears, they all descend into despair, paranoia and disbelief as accusations fly and things come to a shocking and bitter conclusion.
Director Robert Eggers painstakingly made a film that stayed as true to the era of his story as possible. From the costumes to the language and sets, he recreated a time that saw a narrow vision of the world and religion. There were very real things to fear, like the elements and disease, but nothing is as frightening as the unknown. Here it poses as the Devil and his witch minions, who could be blamed for a multitude of sins so-to-speak, since these pilgrims didn’t know much else. Witches and the Devil were their Freddy and Jason back then, and to them it was a very real fear, with salvation and comfort only coming from God. Eggers also artfully weaves in traditional fairy tale elements amidst the real struggle the family faces; using those stories as a relevant source of horror relatable to the era. The performances were excellent, especially from Taylor-Joy and the range of emotions Scrimshaw exhibits. His soon-to-be infamous possession scene is hugely admirable for his young age.
Now, this story wasn’t water-tight. There were opportunities that, without giving away spoilers, could have utilized the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in a way that would have travelled down a more traditional horror route, and perhaps made more sense in a literal way, but it didn’t. If it had, I think horror fans would have felt more satisfied with the overall film, instead of struggling for a grasp on the horror angle.
The verdict? I liked The Witch and my boyfriend did not. First off, don’t expect a literal horror. I did, and along with my boyfriend, we kept waiting for that “horror moment” that never really appeared. After I relaxed my horror expectations, however, I began to enjoy it for the fairy tale aspects and the medieval woodcutting look. I have forever been a huge fan of the morbidly violent and creepy tones of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. The axes swung too and fro, the heads rolled and the innocent suffered often; escapades that have been sugar-coated and softened through the centuries. Eggers doesn’t do that here. The witch is a true crone, with seductive wiles and a bloodthirsty stealth that drives this family to mistrust and madness. It’s a fairy tale at its stark best, from the cinematography to the harsh realities of the wilderness and the living conditions. The fantasy is rinsed off, leaving a brutal uneasiness that turns into a pleasurable weirdness at the end.
As I said before, my boyfriend had no time for this movie. He felt it he was being sold something that didn’t deliver, in his words. He is a true cinephile, with an enormous love for horror as well as having extremely varied tastes in cinema. Even though this was a slow-burn horror, which he is familiar with and enjoys as much as a slasher film, he felt that he was promised a terrifying experience that didn’t deliver. We both read many an article that criticized the horror fans who disliked the film, calling them “narrow-minded” for not being impressed with the art house offering, but I don’t think narrow-mindedness is to blame. I see his point and agree because the real culprit here is not the filmmaker or a fan’s perception, but those churning the big bad marketing cauldron.
There is an incessant need to crow about the next scariest horror movie guaranteed to make you pee your pants, etc. It creates a false sense of certainty that first, this is a horror in the traditional sense with an immediate gratification for visceral jolts of fear (see the film’s trailer below), and second, that every horror fan is disturbed by this type of horror. Horror fans can be the most accepting and diverse film-goers out there, but I think they just don’t like being duped. It’s a matter of misrepresenting what you’re selling simply because you know what people clamour for in order to create a buzz. That does the film a disservice as the marketing can be hard to avoid, and it can be difficult to stay your bias. I felt this way with It Follows, which I didn’t like because it was also sold as a terrifying film, and I wasn’t terrified in the least. I’m an intelligent horror fan with an open mind, and the hype marred my experience. Ultimately though, everyone is talking about The Witch, which is what any filmmaker would want, so it’s a win-win and opens up yet another debate about what constitutes horror.
I think you should see a film to support a new director with a unique vision, not because a media fueled machine tells you how you should react to a film. Some will like The Witch for the meticulous attention to detail and art house flair, and some won’t because it doesn’t represent the type of horror genre it was sold as; it’s as simple as that. When we are allowed to use our own powers of observation and critical thinking instead of what’s being shoved down our throats, when we allow each other to have and accept each other’s opinions, and when we allow a film to organically emerge and create its own momentum, I think there’ll be a better appreciation for a genre that can be as inclusive as its fans.