(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witch “scared 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.