By Jacqueline Howell
We’ve covered the tremendous film The Witch on this site before, and like all great pieces of art, one is torn between stock still speechlessness, because it defies words themselves, and wanting to write a book on the subject. Or an offensively long article.
In short order, The Witch became my go-to viewing pleasure, the biggest one in recent years. Like other The Witch fanatics, even after writing a review and celebrating the film in serious and joking manner all over social media and in daily life, I still encounter too many who’ve not see it. And it feels like that rare film that deserves its very own fandom. Even though I answered a Twitter poll recently in a fit of emotional exhaustion to “end all fandoms”. I don’t know why I did. I guess because elections have turned into scary fandoms at present, instead of the serious endeavor they ought to be. But there’s so much more to say about this film. Rewatchability factor is endless. You can dip a toe in the water and find 15 beautiful minutes, like the stark, vignette-like opening scenes that are clean and spare and say just what they need to in a few frames about banishment and isolation, going from insider to outcast, and the family clinging on to the chimera of safety, of a father who looks Christ-like, while Christ and all the prayers and sins they can muster up fail them over and over again. It’s a story of true, mostly benign hell, and the hell devolves to real horror that requires imagination and focus, patience and a passion for things that subvert expectations, to resisting the pull of the jump scare and the crescendo-ing furious string instruments and looking, straining your eyes and ears while hiding under the quilt to see what you are terrified to know. Sound is challenging in the film, it must have been a deliberate choice. And the language is just a little out of comfort range (Middle English) certainly not difficult like Shakespearean films, but just tough enough to add another element of discomfort. Important.
Films that purport to scare, that high that people love to death, are so worn out after almost 40 years of slashing kids in cabins and babysitters. We dully watch any nice benign face, any stranger, in these films for clues that they are “the killer”. We trust no one. We also have a hard time rooting for anyone. The horror fatigue, the film fatigue, the True Crime fatigue, is very real in today’s culture. Fans talk idly about their favourite drama show plot arcs, saying in public forums that they are “ready to see so-and-so go”. “I wish they’d kill her off and get her off my TV.” Sociopathy has seeped into everyday humanity, and its entertainment, and into fandoms, and not just on the bloody Game of Thrones whose original writer seems to hate all of humanity and the good will of readers (after naming himself after someone who was the elegant utter opposite in every way) but on your average drama series today, where murder is casually thrown in to keep fans watching, as if it was so much seasoning in a stew. We are all devalued, eroded, in this way. I watched every frame of Breaking Bad (most of it multiple times) and found myself betrayed but what I had allowed to become entertained by, ultimately. At first, every death mattered, in that world, as graphic as it was. But as it turned cartoon-esquely violent in service of increasingly scary fanboys, I saw that something great had turned into something terrible, taking millions of intelligent viewers careening into a casual hell that now must be topped in television in film. I shrunk like a snail afterward.
The Witch is layered deeply like an onion. There’s the family, the homestead (half-built) there’s the empty, neighbourless landscape, there is an endless and unknown wood. Each and every item they tentatively own is critical, pivotal, fraught. The one horse. A silver cup (a treasure of their lost life in England). An unreliable gun that will backfire in your eye more reliably than kill a rabbit, 20 times over. The dog, whose purpose in 1692 was the same as it is today: to comfort human beings, to bark loud for us, watch over us and to tell us the night and its unknown terrors is not going to take us. But who watches out for the humble dog? Each unaffordable child is a risky promise that life will continue, that you can reap what you sow, that they will help fill in your slim and desperately lonely ranks. But the crops are failing. You’ve sinned too much. The rigidity of the Puritan world means even grieving your child or your father’s silver cup too long is sinful. Home is a lean-to. The barn animals whose cries bleed through the walls have it as good as you do, and they are your sustenance, your stocks and bonds, your playmates, and your only friends. Are they meat? Are they a jewel you can sell to stay alive? Are they a vehicle, a means of escape? Are they, as everyone believed in those days, harbingers of evil, of omens, of the devil? Are we projecting?
This film at first seems painfully slow. If you like slow, because you really hate most of modern horror and all it implies, from yet another woman tortured and thrown away in excruciating detail, to the ridiculously scary ghosts who have no fucking mandate or norms that an audience can understand anymore, you will love it. There are some true moments of shocking horror that are sort of subtle and might almost be missed. But when you think about them, when you see them again, you see what true horror is. It is quiet. Matter of fact. Cool and calm. It cares not about you or god or babies or dogs or sweet boys on the edge of becoming men. It sees you all as food or fuel or clutter. And it is unmasked. Horror can come from the person sleeping beside you or within your own mind. And you know, in the end, we all sleep alone.
The subtlety of this film is that while you are looking for a footing in normal tropes of either modern horror or classic horror, it masterfully plays with you like a marionette on strings. Arguably, the entire story is explained in plain language very early on. Beautifully. This was not clear to me until the third watch. It comes at you like the silly red herrings of other films, but you don’t recognize it. Indeed, the film is so subtle that confused fans run to internet forums and social media to invent twists and logic that isn’t there and doesn’t need to be there (another thing that’s happened to audiences with so much lazy and bad film making out there, filling our own blanks and improving on a bad edit.) Instead of growing and becoming more creative, too many people want everything explained in point form- when the object of film when it’s true art is that it’s endless. It’s timeless. It’s supposed to last 100 years. Not be fast food.
Make no mistake, the film explains itself very well. There is at least one witch. There is witchcraft. There’s no twist that needs to be dumbed down. It was always right there in the microcosm of society that any family is. When prayer fails you, when society shuns you, what do you do? You invent your own religion. You make your own craft, to survive. Or you sink. Or go mad. Or get whisked away by what: a wolf? The wolf, the scapegoat whose species has never done a fraction of what a bad man will do to his own when operating in the dark. Or what a good woman will do to survive.
The Witch can be given many multiple readings, among them feminist (like anything witchcraft and Salem Witch Trials themselves) atheist, even satanist. It’s a cultural criticism, it’s a statement about authority, hubris, about all the versions of “prideful conceit” we know. It’s a tragic tale that looks at the impossible, brutal conditions of pioneer life and the utter nightmare that it often became. The ruthlessness of religion and banishment from its rigid embrace is a death sentence here, in a climate where life was precarious at the best of times. It’s also just a damn good witch story, horror film and is full of beauty and strange humour, and no reading is necessary to dig it.
As an experimental format of writing and thinking in short form, I tweeted while watching this film. As it came out to 50 tweets, I decided to condense them down for readability and for the annoyance factor, even though I know it was well read even if not commented on. But it was an interesting exercise. People do it on twitter for other films, but usually with an agenda to be funny/snide. Going into it with the opposite aim was much harder. Let me know if you’ve tried something like this or have read any good “livetweets” of films. I’ve cleaned up most of the formatting for readability here, but kept it separated into the tweet length I used for each comment, with one line added for clarity “(but the jump scares are never predictable, nor are the actions or motivations of anyone. Not anyone)”.
(I actually sat down to watch it later, around 9pm.)
1st thing you need to know is the inspired casting of gravel-voiced “Finchy” aka Sales rep Chris Finch – BBC Office-
as the patriarch. He is banish’d from a settlement along with his large family for the sin of prideful conceit.
Also, hard for audiences /fun for witchcraft/history/ lit types, dialogue is of late 1600s & lifted from Salem Trials
A family cart lurches away to bleak woods, all grasping, each all alone: as sad and achingly lonely scene as ever seen on film
and that’s before they break into an A Capella hymn to solidify the mood. Prideful conceit. Keep praying as it breaks
No slasher: Slow, delicious burn. A baby disappearing into thin air IS ACTUAL horror. Isolation. Woods. Mistrust.
Being sent out to fund your family, like cattle. The fate of teenage girls without means. Responsibility w/out power
Praying hard, failing, and at a time & climate where prayer was literally all they had to explain the world.
When prayers fail, who’s to blame? Finger pointing. Near starvation, lack of heat/wood, and failure. New England.
This backdrop all part of what happened leading up to Salem Witch Trials. Film is somewhat about that ground zero.
Flipside of all that insecurity: the immense untapped power of a teenage girl that authority/dad/society would smother.
She has a sense of it but is mostly unaware. She’s treated with aggression because adults see it, hate it, envy it, mother too.
This is a movie- but this here is also the story of every single garden- variety teenage girl in every family. In all of time.
Power. Potential. Patriarchy. Religion. Fear. Superstition. Pettiness. Failure. Crops failing. Threats inside & out.
Someone will/must go deeply academic with this, I won’t but it would hold up to so much study and fit in so many areas of art.
Now for the fun stuff. My absolute fave line is from mother: OUR CORN IS TRASH. Sounds so modern, so shady. But heartfelt.
Epic atmosphere. Tension & creep factor endless. Fate of the baby shown in brief cuts is a bleak harbinger amid rioting score.
This wilderness will not consume us. We’ll lay these traps again. Out there without the shield of baptism – doomed.
I won’t give away the ending or the genuine twists- twists in our expectations, as unruly as a black goat’s bucking dance.
But this film delivers on repeat as few of the “genre” do.
SHEEEEEIT U should KNOW Black Phillip by now, U must be last on the block. He’s a THING. But don’t be deterred from meeting him
The book The Witches: Salem, 1692, tells of poppets, akin to voodoo dolls. If found in Salem homes, would seal your fate.
The Witch’s twins, Mercy & Jonas, are creepy oversized dolls, chanting, taunting, singing, cruel, senseless. The angry mob here
They get more fascinating /creepy with time. Clad like little adults, pint sized, so casually we call misbehaving kids demons.
As authentic as the homestead looks & feels, you know it’s more authentic still. You can see where love & craft was bled here.
If you are like me you are exhausted from entire CG worlds that your very brain knows are fraudulent, and I crave the real sets
By this point in CG rich film, I could weep over a real fence & pitchfork. I drink it up like it was the Palace of Versailles.
This and Babadook (flawless) both put their indie money where it counted most: in to the physical world of the film/ the home.
AND costuming, the stitches, I want that person’s autograph. You are my film crush. Layering each body like too-soft armour.
Teenage Thomasin is the film’s centre, but it swirls, mostly madly around her for most of the film. (It would seem…)More
Obedient, dutiful, commodified, misjudged, Thomasin is in a limbo between that Fd up family & future, own potential, desires.
She can look childlike but is clearly blossoming AND blank, a shape-shifting that drives puritanical types mad then and now.
Beautiful virginal girls & their threatening power are the heart of not only most of horror but TV dramas and True Crime, too.
The film looks at powerful forces in conflict from religion, witchcraft, mom, dad, nature, the idea of godlessness & survival
Growing up in decades of seeing girls/women be abused & die for entertainment, accepting and absorbing that idea, was toxic.
It was utterly normal- action films. Books, I read ’em all. But inside something would twist up and reject the programming, too
All I’m saying is, these days, I want the girl to live. I want to not see “the girl” tortured, abused or killed.
So there’s that. It’s important that critics love this film. It is ELEVATED. It is new. And it’s not political.
Fearing The Witch was scary as hell (1st viewing) made it great. What does scary mean to you? I watched w my face covered, happy to survive.
My read is that it deals with things scary to men, for once & critics approved! It’s for atheists, wiccans & dark lord allies.
Lapsed Catholics, for sure. We are trying to shake it all off still. This movie makes me cheer and makes me scared of myself!
A faithful, great horror element is the shadenfreude. WE’D surely outwit these (impossible) obstacles. Don’t go to the barn!
(but the jump scares are never predictable, nor are the actions or motivations of anyone. Not anyone.)
The way I describe the film, the particular things I love, belie how sumptuous, classy, and subtle it is. Performances. Light.
I loved it instantly the way I love Jaws, The Royal Tenenbaums, Trainspotting, and increasingly rare others. Every element.