The Witch (2015) Director: Robert Eggers
The Witch advertises itself as a folktale (perhaps as opposed to a fairy tale). It is another inspiring production from A24, a studio increasingly renowned for taking risks and supporting up and coming directors. The Witch is the directorial debut of Robert Eggers and it is part of an extraordinary renaissance in the horror genre as we move beyond amusing parodies in slasher films into serious, intelligent (albeit haunting) portrayals of the unknown. Of the two films thus far released by Robert Eggers, I prefer The Witch to The Lighthouse, but I look forward to seeing what comes next (apparently he is set to release a Nordic-themed thriller next year and a remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent German horror classic Nosferatu is in the works).
In the cold, grey atmosphere of New England of the 1630s one family has been banished from the rigid puritanical colony as a result of religious disagreements (though we later learn it is merelyy the result of sinful pride). With a newborn child, toddler twins, a boy named Caleb, and a teenaged daughter named Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the somewhat pig-headed family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson, whom I immediately recognized for his role in the UK The Office series), and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) found a new homestead at the edge of a wooded forest. Almost from the beginning however, the ground itself seems to be cursed. The crops fail and even a hen cannot produce an egg to eat. One morning while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo, the baby suddenly vanishes. We then see scenes of a naked, elderly witch killing the child for its blood.
From here, things become chaotic for this devoutly religious family, though notably they are each sinners in their own ways. The wild, mysterious untamed woods are associated with witchery, satanism in contrast to the mild security provided by the village. One morning, Caleb goes missing (we see him lured into a hut by a witch) only to return to his family in the night naked and disoriented. They pray over Caleb but he shouts various things and coughs up a whole apple before suddenly dying. Fingers begin to point at Thomasin who is accused of being a witch, but she reiterates that the twins claim to have spoken with “Black Philip” the family’s horned goat. Thus William locks them all in the stable, but that night a witch appears and kills the twins. In the morning, William finds the stable destroyed but before he can attack Thomasin he is suddenly gored to death by Black Philip (the family goat), and Katherine attacks Thomasin but in defense she stabs her mother to death. Now left alone, Thomasin speaks to Black Philip, who surprisingly offers her “the world” and a “delicious life” in a haunting, whispery voice. Thomasin agrees and signs her name in his book, strips naked, and wanders into the woods where she happens upon a witch’s covent. At the end she flies upward into the night sky amidst an uproar of maniacal laughter (this mysterious haunting laughter is later echoed in Eggers’ next film The Lighthouse). The very thing she resisted most of all (witchery) has now become Thomasin’s only remaining means of survival.
From everything down to the use of natural lighting, authentic dialogue based on journals from the period, and a realistic set constructed in the remote Canadian wilderness, The Witch brings a breath of fresh air to the horror genre in our contemporary era –not unlike themes found in The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. The disturbing aspect of The Witch is that we (the audience) find ourselves in the unusual position of longing for Thomasin to escape from her brooding and repressive family. However, a witch is never fully alone I suppose. Thomasin escapes one insular, stale religious world and replaces it with perhaps merely another more dangerous religious cult. Some have interpreted the film as a feminist narrative as Thomasin finds liberation in satanism, but I think there is a bit more nuance here. There is not mere Marxist liberation from the bonds of society, station, family, and religion –instead this is an example of swapping one repression for another because human survival in the wilderness depends upon some degree of religious superstition, and perhaps that is a truly horrifying realization to the modern mind.