Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Witch: a New England folktale

Robert Eggers, 2015, USA-UK-Canada-Brazil

It is perhaps going to mislead the casual viewer when people say ‘The Witch’ is scary and frightening and terrifying if they believe those descriptions come from Insidious style jump-scares. Although it may indeed make you jump ~ I did ~ the frightening qualities of Robert Eggers’ debut film ‘The Witch’ come from a deeper source: the ambience, the hints, the human behaviour, people ranting religiously, strangeness, distrust, ambiguity. It comes from making children’s rhymes and prancing goats sinister, from leaving the uncanny unexplained and much left to interpretations; it comes from several images haunting the memory long afterwards. 

In the 17th Century New World, an English family is banished from their community and try to survive on the edge of the woods. But it seems that something from the woods has a thing for stealing babies and when the youngest member disappears, the family starts to fall apart. 

Scenes of the father William (Ralph Ineson) chopping wood might conjure a paternal figure’s pending homicidal madness as in ‘The Amityville Horror’ ~ and I have seen trailers for the film that promote this suggestion ~ but this too is misleading. He doesn’t really prove a threat and his children aren’t really scared of him, even when he boards them into the stable. Such red herrings dominate to make us distrust everyone. If the supernatural elements are to be taken at face value ~ and proceed with caution here too ~ there is then perhaps the question of maybe who summoned this malevolence? The adolescent son’s budding lustfulness? The twins’ incantations and their blindly harmful play? Or is it the eldest girl Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) after all, through whose standpoint we mostly see things? After all, she is just entering womanhood. Or are the parents bringing this all upon their own family through pious belief and unhappiness? Everyone is perhaps blameable: everyone is a sinner. Or is this just mass hallucination caused by ill crops and a worldview being hammered into the children (Eggers is careful to show a rotten cob of corn)? And of course this is The New World, so  then have the family perhaps brought witch with them from England or was she already there, just waiting for victim?

Apparently the influences upon director Eggers include ‘The Shining’ and Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, the ambiguity and the sinister atmosphere can readily be divined from ‘The Shining’, but in my experience people also forget how chilling and unsettling Bergman could be without warning, with the unreal and dreams apparently seamlessly informing and interacting with the characters as much as the tortured dialogues (‘Fanny and Alexander’, ‘Wild Strawberries’ and ‘Hour of the Wolf’ all feature uncanny sequences within their dramas that would not be out of place in a horror). And that also goes some way to indicating how Eggers’ favours the open interpretation and its realistic qualities. It has an apparent legitimacy that exceeds the fabrications of based-on-a-story films: this is down to the frequently impenetrable era dialogue and Craig Lathrop’s production design: it’s not that the film will not footnote its sources, but it leaves this to the end and doesn’t sell it as legitimacy (it has a far more sinister and convincing mood than ‘The Conjuring’, for example). Eggers says:

“So much has been made of the authenticity of this, and of course that’s important to me, but authenticity for the sake of authenticity doesn’t really matter,” says Eggers. “To understand why the witch archetype was important and interesting and powerful—and how was I going to make that scary and alive again—we had to go back in time to the early modern period when the witch was a reality. And the only way I was going to do that, I decided, was by having it be insanely accurate.”

What ‘The Witch’ shares with other contemporary films such as ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’ and ‘Martyrs’ is a sense of where horror comes from (grief, growing up, religion, etc.). This is not the same knowingness of ‘Scream’ or ‘Cabin in the Woods’ which satirise genre tropes, but a self-awareness of how external horrors feed on internal paranoia and anxiety, on human weakness. But of course, any film evoking witchcraft in such a way is going to make people look back at Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, and if perhaps Eggers evokes the kind of eeriness of, say, Jan Svankmajer’s animated shorts, he doesn’t forget that claiming others are witches is also the product of petty blame-gaming and hysteria. The family proves they are as much their own enemies as any outside force. See the family turn on each other, for they have nowhere else to turn.

Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography gives this New World washed-out, depressed tones to fit the family’s doom laden outlook. The performances are exceptional across the board with all the characters given time to express complexities before they all implode (except perhaps for the twins). These are tales and horrors that we have heard from folklore and by sticking close to the history of it and leaving much unspoken, Eggers taps into something genuinely unsettling in a way derived from nightmares rather than shocks. Many have seen the ending as literal, which it may be, but I would still be wary of doing so. The film haunts like a fever dream and that’s why it frightens.

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