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"The Witch" casts its spell in these troubled times

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FILM REVIEW: The Witch: A New England Folktale (A24) 2015

Halloween may be in our rearview mirror at the moment, but for those who were too busy during an October that sped by incredibly quickly, there is one fairly recent film that fits perfectly in these dark times, where fear, repression and isolation are themes that – sadly – resonate.

I speak of The Witch, the 2015 supernatural horror film, now on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming on Amazon Prime, that cast a spell on moviegoers and critics alike two years ago and proved to be deserving of its “horror” designation, although not in the usual, gore-and-scare-a-second way.

This is a slow-burning and powerful film that while taking place in 1630’s, Puritanical and colonial America (New England – and subtitled A New England Folktale), could serve as a metaphor for the dread many people are sensing in these uncertain days, where a “witch-hunt” environment seems to be spreading.

Brings to mind Arthur Miller’s McCarthy-era classic The Crucible, although The Witch is set some five-or-more decades before the infamous Salem Witch Trials noted in Miller’s story. But that same paranoia is real – and that fear, compounded by a deep suspicion of anything slightly different from their Calvinistic theology and ways of living. That was the mistake of the father in The Witch. His Christian view was slightly different that that of the community in which he and his family lived. This proved to be his undoing. Had this stubborn man simply gone with the flow, as it were, he might not have put himself and his family in jeopardy, as we soon learn.

But The Witch is not a political film, per se. It’s about the human condition. About finding yourself a part of society one minute and exiled – banished – the next. And with that, the fears and uncertainty that come with it. And the desires of the human heart, be they good or bad.

With a film score that is ominous and disorienting (courtesy of Mark Korven), first-time writer/director Robert Eggers (who won Best Director for The Witch at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival) clearly has done his homework in regards to clothing styles, a formal form of English as it was spoken 400 years ago, and the Puritanical rigidness that made life barely tolerable for many people, including the poor family at the heart of The Witch. The natural lighting, scenes in the forest and the realistic – and surrealistic – dialogue, help

In fact, in reading more about Eggers, it turns out that he has had a lifelong fascination with witches, an eye for authenticity and detail (note the woolen and linen clothing, the farm animals and dung everywhere, dying crops, sweat and blood) and an appreciation for historical accuracy, something that you don’t always get with the Puritanical era books and films.

Ralph Ineson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pts. 1 & 2, Guardians of the Galaxy) plays the uneviable role of William, a Christian family man, recently arrived in Colonial America from (listening to the accents) northern England, along with his pious wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), middle son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and teen daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasina in The Witch. (A24)

After being exiled from the pilgrim-led plantation, to a remote farmstead on the edge of a dark forest, the Puritan family makes a go of it, but the crops aren’t coming in and their brood needs food to get through the coming winter. And with its setting (which was filmed in Ontario, Canada, due to film tax credits), you can feel the damp chill settling into your bones.

It is seemingly sweet and innocent Thomasin who is the focus of The Witch, although stouthearted, young Caleb takes his role as a “man,” expected to pull his weight and help protect his mother and siblings, quite seriously – and to his detriment, as we soon discover as he succumbs to his desires as he stumbles upon a moss-covered dwelling deep in the wood, and is tempted by a seductive woman who has plans for young Caleb.

Caleb, who is entering adolescence, is clearly noting his older sister’s womanly attributes, while Katherine is becoming increasingly troubled by Thomasin’s seemingly growing independence, while William seems increasingly “lost in the wilderness” of his mind as he tries to keep his fracturing family together against increasingly insurmountable odds.

It’s early in the film, when Thomasin has taken the infant Samuel to the edge of the dark forest, where the first whiff of evil is sensed as Thomasin plays peekaboo with the boy and one second the baby is there and the next he is gone – much to Thomasin’s and the family’s shock. And to my shock, quite frankly. Was it a wolf? Or was it a witch, needing the baby as an ingredient for some diabolical paste that helps a witch fly under the full moon?

Yes. It is very disturbing, in a psychological way, reminiscent for me in tone, feel and suspense to 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies – and in places, to 1980’s The Shining. And then there's Pan's Labyrinth, about a girl facing her fears in a troubled time in 1940's Spain, which was under fascist control. 

All the while, it is clear that Thomasin and her twin siblings Mercy and Jonas are at odds, and when Thomasin jests that she is in league with the devil, it seems that she may be telling them the truth.

All this as life on their isolated, dying farm spirals further out of control, from the seemingly familiar to the decidedly dark, foreboding and unfamiliar. An evil is lurking and seems to have its eyes on Thomasin and what she represents – a bright, yet seemingly empty vessel – yet at the same time a woman with potential power, power in a fiercely patriarchal society, surrounded by seemingly innocent animals.

A hare. A raven. A demonic black goat named "Black Phillip." Well, you can see where this is going as he asks if she wouldst though like to live deliciously?” An offer that could seem appealing to a woman with nowhere to turn in that bleak, unforgiving wilderness.

Clearly different from her family members and very tempting to the forces of evil who want to get her to write her name in “the book," Thomasin seems to become increasingly open to ways utterly counter to the beliefs of her Christian parents - as the world falls apart for this doomed family.

Yes, there are some hokey elements toward the end, but in general, The Witch holds its own as a daring, psychologically jarring film that, while set in the 17th century, could very much be in the 21st century. 

The Witch is one of those rare films that really haunts you long after seeing it, making you wonder if there is more to this "folktale" than we actually realize.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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