In this ongoing SHOCK column, editor Chris Alexander tells tales and muses on classic, contemporary and obscure horror cinema.
I missed seeing THE WITCH at Sundance.
I missed seeing THE WITCH at TIFF.
I missed the myriad press screenings prior to the film’s theatrical release.
Why? Life happens. You know how it is. And in my business, opportunities to see new films via screener or download link or some other covert exhibition are common. So, knowing that A24 was aiming to give THE WITCH a wide theatrical release, I presumed that I’d have another easy chance to do so.
But I didn’t. The film opened last week and I was, despite covering the film to death here, ignorant to its charms.
So with that, finally, I stacked my quarters and made the trek to see the late show screening of the film last night.
At the box office, it gave me a mild buzz to stare the pimple-faced teen in the face and, while peeling off my black leather gloves, dramatically articulate my demands:
“One…for THE WITCH, if you please…”
In the middle of this modern movie theater-cum-amusement park, with its 3D superhero romps and spastic children’s films and saccharine rom-coms, I was about to settle into a screening of a film penned in olde English, a period drama about witchcraft, murdered children and evil livestock, shot in Canada for the same money DEADPOOL spent on craft services. A film that, in a brilliant marketing move, has been embraced and endorsed by The Satanic Church.
And I was alone. And it was Wednesday. Hump day.
It felt so wrong, so right. Even odder was buying a bucket of greasy, over-priced popcorn to glut myself on while living through the movie. The ritual of consuming entertainment was thrillingly at odds with the seeing a movie about far blacker rituals.
So I watched THE WITCH. And here are my thoughts. And yes, there will be a miasma of spoilers ahead, so if you’ve yet to see the picture and still plan to, I advise considering this before reading.
From the opening frames of Robert Eggers‘ bleak death opera, we hit a single note, a mood. And it’s not a happy one. We meet a pilgrim patriarch (Ralph Ineson, whose gargled-razor voice is as affecting as you’ve heard) and his wide-eyed, God-choked brood in the midst of being exiled from their village due to dad’s pride and stubborn belief that his love of the Lord trumps that of his community. Grey, and filled with drawn, somber faces (including that of Canadian indie legend Julian Richings, making a welcome cameo), Eggers paints a picture of misery, struggle and superstition from the get go. Like Kubrick’s adaptation of THE SHINING, where it’s clear that madness has already got Jack Torrence in its grip long before he enters the Overlook, we can see that the father’s defiance is corrosive and will spell his downfall…and the downfall of the people who depend on him.
We connect with the family some time later, after they’ve set up shop in the woods. We see the children, the twins, baby Samuel, son Caleb, wife Katherine and eldest daughter Thomasin, not to mention a gaggle of animals who reside on the makeshift farm, including a titanic ebony goat appropriately named Black Phillip. When, under Thomasin’s care, baby Samuel inexplicably goes missing in the woods, things go rapidly downhill…
We then meet “the witch” herself, stroking the naked infant, then grinding him into a paste and smothering her breasts in the pulpy mess. All of this sounds more disgusting than it is when actually illustrated; these sequences are not based in reality, rather they are impressions, shot in flickering flame and shadow, like slivers of a dream.
Back on the farm, mother is going mad with grief, the young twins are oblivious and dad is stoic and putting his faith in a God that he idiotically believes will eventually solve all of his clan’s problems. The weight of reality falls on the shoulders of lovely Caleb, who himself is struggling with the concepts of God and faith in an increasingly Godless world. And his sister, the pretty Thomasin has been struggling even longer. And though the family believes a wolf may have stolen and killed baby Samuel, Thomasin feels increasingly isolated, like her parents blame her the loss. She certainly blames herself…
Things keep unraveling. Whispers of “the witch of the woods” are omnipresent and visions of her, sometimes as a crone with impossibly long hair, sometimes as a sexually ripe siren, seep into the edit. More children die and more suspicion is placed on Thomasin as the bringer of doom. Why? Because she’s a woman? Perhaps. A young woman trapped in an oppressive micro-society that needs a scapegoat and targets anything that challenges its fragile belief system.
Much has been already written about the nature of the tale, if it is indeed a supernatural story about a Satanic force in the woods picking apart a family or an allegorical horrorshow about how evil enters when sanity goes out for a smoke. That’s an age old truth, one we see on every level of our various global societies. Madness is contagious. On a grand scale and on an intimate level, once individual thought is removed, the machine swells and eats itself.
But in the final reel, as the drama whittles down to the plight of battered daughter Thomasin, I began to read it as her story. Not a phantasmagorical shocker about evil goats (Black Philip really is a spectacular presence) and naked witches living in tree-houses. Rather I read it as the story of a girl who is trapped. Who is quietly smothered and gently abused and whose future is as bleak as the drained nature of the gloomy New England woods themselves. A girl who has watched her once lovely mother sucked to a husk by life and knows that her own fate is inescapable. While the family gets lost in a fever of despair and commits psychic suicide, she begins to check out and when the horror of her reality becomes too much, she snaps entirely and hallucinates a total surrender to the alternative to what her situation represents. In her madness, she embraces everything she has been screamed at to abhor.
She lets the Devil in. She lets go of sanity. She finds salvation in total and complete insanity.
Thomasin is played by Anya Taylor-Joy and in interviews, she has mentioned that she believes THE WITCH to have a happy ending.
I do too.
And that’s what’s so horrifying about it.
Leaving that dark theater, the slowed-down string drags of composer Mark Korven still ringing in my ears while exiting to the discotheque-esque lobby, I was disoriented, shaken.
By the film, yes.
And by the fact that I just saw this work of dark, psychological, visceral and malevolently cerebral art in a mainstream multiplex in suburbia.
This shouldn’t have happened. Not in this day and age.
What is THE WITCH doing here? In this place?
It doesn’t make sense.
But it’s here. And people are seeing it. And they’re talking about it. It’s influencing pop culture. It’s infecting the zeitgeist.
It’s a movie that matters, that threatens the status quo and it does it quietly, tricking the kids into thinking they’re seeing the latest Blumhouse jump-scare creeper and instead dragging them to Hell and sending them stumbling back into gen pop.
So, if you have yet to do so…please see THE WITCH.
There is this slim chance that any success it has might just assist in allowing powerful,dangerous cinema to enter the contemporary lexicon.
Let it in. Let her in. Let THE WITCH in…