Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Snack Report: Macadamia/White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Making a mediocre horror movie can’t be all that hard. Take a scary story with zombies, vampires, or monsters and throw in some jump scares and juicy splatters, and you’re ready to go direct-to-video.
What is a lot more difficult, however, is making a horror film that will linger in the minds of your audience long after they’ve left the theater.
In his directorial debut, Robert Eggers succeeded spectacularly in doing exactly that. The Witch indeed raises issues that you can’t simply dismiss after the closing credits roll.
On initially watching this movie, the first thing I noticed was the incredible artistry. I was reminded of the description of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane – “Every frame is a painting,” perfectly composed. According to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, it was mostly shot using only natural light or candlelight.
Even the dialogue is immersive – The characters speak in archaic, heavily accented English, with much of the dialogue taken directly from historical accounts and folktales, journals, diaries, and court records from authentic period sources (including the Salem witch trials).
Eggers said he wanted The Witch to feel “like a Puritan’s nightmare.” Indeed, this story would scare a Puritan right out of his buckled hat…
Imagine living in the harsh theocratic state of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Following the rules was NOT optional. Any deviation from the biblical interpretations of the elders of the community, and you’d pay a steep price.
In the film’s first scene, a man named William (Ralph Ineson) has been convicted of some sort of heresy or blasphemy, and he stands before the council waiting to be sentenced. But like the honey badger, William don’t care. He won’t back down, and if they want to boot him and his family out of Plymouth Plantation, he’s perfectly fine with that.
Of course, William isn’t the only one who will suffer from banishment. Life is going to get a lot worse for his family as they eke out a bare-bones existence alone in the wilderness. That includes William’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie – Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones!), his teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), bratty younger twins Jonas and Mercy, and new baby Samuel.
When we next see the family, they’ve established a homestead at the edge of a dense forest. Then one day while Thomasin plays with baby Sam near the treeline, she looks away for just an instant, and Sam simply vanishes. The family believes a wolf stole him away, but we know what really happened; a witch took him and murdered him to turn his body into skin cream.
Katherine can’t deal with the loss of her baby, and her sanity begins to crack. She blames Thomasin for all the misfortunes that have befallen the family.
Even pre-teen Caleb is under pressure. His father confides in Caleb that their crops have failed, and they won’t have enough food to last the winter. What’s worse, Caleb has started to notice his older sister’s boobs, and like any good Puritan boy, he’s terrified that he’s going straight to hell.
Meanwhile, the most annoying children on the planet, Jonas and Mercy, run around screeching and singing songs about the family’s big black goat, “Black Phillip.” They also accuse Thomasin of witchcraft and killing Sam.
When Thomasin and Caleb venture into the forest to hunt, they become separated. Caleb comes across the gutted corpse of his dog, then a beautiful woman comes out of a little cottage and kisses him. But as she grasps the back of his head, we can see her gnarled, clawlike hand.
As usual, it’s Thomasin’s fault that Caleb went missing, but then he turns up naked and battered the next morning. Mercy and Jonas again accuse Thomasin of witchcraft. As the family desperately prays for Caleb, he thrashes around in seizures and babbles religious nonsense, while Mercy and Jonas also do an Exorcist imitation and fall into fits on the sidelines. (This was based directly on the Salem Witch Trials.)
Poor Caleb declares his readiness to meet Jesus and promptly dies. The family proceeds to tear itself apart, accusing Thomasin of bewitching her brother (as well as causing all their other miseries). Thomasin then turns the tables, declaring that Mercy and Jonas have a diabolical pact with Black Phillip.
At this point, William doesn’t know which end is up, so he locks his three surviving children in the barn with the goats until he figures out what to do. Meanwhile, Katherine is visited by the ghosts of Caleb and Sam.
Here’s where things really fall apart, and when it’s all over, Thomasin is the sole survivor… except for Black Phillip. Who it turns out really CAN talk, and he has a discussion with Thomasin about where she might go from here.
Are the never-ending misfortunes that plague this family the work of demonic forces? Did the Devil destroy this family for his own purposes – perhaps trying to drive Thomasin out of the family so he can recruit her for the coven? It’s never made clear.
Alternatively, could their desperate situation have led to a shared family psychotic break? Or, as Eggers also mentions, if the reason for the failure of their corn crop was ergot fungus, the entire family could have been poisoned, in the grip of a psychosis from ergotism.
There’s so much to unpack from The Witch… is it a parable of female empowerment? The dangers of religious fanaticism? Or maybe it’s just a story.
Eggers stated that his intention was for the viewer to take the film at face value and assume the satanic part really happened. Just the same, unlike in the Puritan colony, there’s plenty of room for debate.
Here’s some fascinating trivia from tonight’s film…
- In witchcraft lore, Satan was often said to take on the form of a goat, which is why goats were so often invited to coven parties.
- Speaking of goats, Black Phillip was supposed to get a lot more screen time, but unfortunately he wasn’t as well-trained as promised, so many of his scenes were cut. Eggers said the other animal actors (the raven and the horse) were quite well-behaved, and that the hare was a real professional.
- The witches around the bonfire are chanting in Enochian – a language often used in magical rituals. It was first used by 16th century British occultist John Dee.
- Stephen King , one of the scariest guys on earth, said he was terrified by this movie.