Skip to main content

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch
(2015)

(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.



Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably in getting under the skin, working its spell through the power of suggestion rather than shock tactics (albeit, the Mark Korven score sometimes over exerts itself, seemingly looking to Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem for cues).


While The Witch proffers an ostensibly literal take on witchcraft – we see one in the first scene, and we’re led to assume she has boiled the family baby for a flying unguent – there isn’t much here that cannot be read as the paranoid delusions of an isolated group afflicted by ergot poisoning (we’re shown their blighted crops). There are no scenes – that I recall – where adult protagonists independently verify the supernatural (even the sequence where the siblings see a witch sucking on a goat could be paralleled with the converged hysteria of The Crucible), be those incidents a talking ruminant or levitation at a witches’ Sabbath.


Which is a positive, as the most persuasive aspect of the picture is the disintegration of the family unit out of a desperate fear of pervasive devilry (just as in The Wicker Man, the final “sacrifice” is secured through the blindness instilled by devotion to a God who never shows his face), and more especially blaming fault lines on the machinations of external forces. Those being, everyone pointing the finger at Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) through guilt over their own indiscretions of thought and deed.


Eggers makes it clear that both father William (Ralph Ineson, previously of Game of Thrones) and eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) have incestuous thoughts towards Thomasin, while mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, also previously of Game of Thrones) blames her for every problem that arises, masking her own deficiencies as a shrewish wife recognising a blooming daughter eclipsing her (in this context, the picture takes on a Freudian, coming of age quality, Thomasin killing her mother and entering into her own fully-explored sexuality as the now-free title character, give or take the odd goat master). The two youngest children, twins Mercy and Jonas, meanwhile, under the assumed influence of the family he-goat (“Black Phillip saith I can do what I like”), repeat the mantra of Thomasin’s witchery until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


It’s thus easy to see why some, misguidedly (one wonders at the Church of Satan’s endorsement of the picture, such that one can only assume it was understood in its shallowest form), regard the innocent Thomasin’s eventual accession to the wood-dwelling coven as a triumph; she’s released from the destructive impulses of these uber-repressed Puritans, who see Satan in every shadow, including in the heart of their own family when the going gets tough.


Certainly, if Thomasin had ventured back to the plantation, she would surely have been tried and found guilty of witchcraft (this prefiguring Salem witch hysteria, casting it as a virus of suspicion and paranoia spreading from small units to entire settlements in the interim). The family that strives to walk with Christ rather walk entirely with fear and the daily underlining of their own sinfulness (Eggers’ use of an apple, both in the lie to Katherine over where William and Caleb have been and the object caught in the latter’s throat, emphasises Original Sin).


As such, the natural world is seen as something inherently twisted, rather than God’s creation. William comments, “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us”.
Nature is untameable, however, and its denizens (“You cannot escape the wood”), be they rabbits (familiars), “wolves” that carry off babies, or witches – in such a reading, they are extensions of nature, an oppositional force to the suffocating restriction and inadequacy of Puritan beliefs – are destined to usurp all interlopers.


Admittedly, I have to come down on the side of suggestion being more effective than making explicit here, however subjectively you want to label whatever is shown. While certain sequences of supernatural incident exert a powerful effect – Caleb’s death bed scene, which concludes in a parody of heavenly ecstasy that might have startled even Ken Russell, and Katherine’s vision of her suckling baby turning out to be a raven pecking at her teat – others reduce the impact of what has been a resolutely lo-fi stage, utilising natural light and semi-authentic language to place us in the seventeenth century.


Thus, the skyclad, sky riding at the climax is, visually at least, a disappointment, even if it has thematic resonance. So too, after all the build-up, Black Phillip given voice is lacking in insidious/seductive wallop (although, the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” is, well, delicious). On the subject of which, while I have no wish to diminish her performance, if you cast Kate Dickie in something, you practically know she’s going to be unhinged by the end of it, even if she wasn’t at the start.


The Witch appears to have been one of those pictures whose critical hype failed to ignite quite such proportionate audience interest (that said, it still made very decent returns on its meagre budget). One might argue the reason for this snobbishily – that it’s only lowest common denominator horror movies that turn out to be a gold mine – but it wasn’t for want of trying (the poster art is entirely misleading of the content). And The Witch is undoubtedly a layered, subtle picture, very much inhabiting a world whereby “the folk tale” (its subtitle being “A New England Folktale”)arises from reported incidents, reported incidents awash with strange feats and superstitions (arising from credulous Christian testimonies, and so feeding further into the idea of a threat fashioned by the family’s own fears).


So no, The Witch didn’t scare the hell out of me, but it did resonate and linger in the mind, effectively reigniting the themes of the more sober and earnest The Crucible in an unsettling and wholly cinematic fashion. It’s also a pretty damn good killer goat movie.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Great film. I'd forgotten Ralph Ineson was in GoT; he'll always be Finchy from The Office for me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, I mostly avoided The Office, being allergic to Ricky Gervais.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.