This season’s Indie Folk-Horror darling, The VVitch, the tale of one isolated family’s banishment and descent into a 17th century rural farming nightmare, is many things.
The directorial debut by Robert Eggers, which, incidentally, made $39 million on a $1 million budget and looks better than most $60 million dollar films, is a slowly spinning loom of narrative, pacing, action, and landscapes (inner and outer) where the enemy or threat is a moving target, like all good psychological drama (and horror).
It’s a Historian’s and a Middle English scholar’s dream with its use of well-researched authentic language (from texts and court transcripts of the time) that make this film ripe for a bit of future school use, entertainment and information. Remember that?
The film hits on some timeless themes that always need interrogation in any film from the over-stretched Superhero genre to the artist-at-war with himself thinkpiece: Who speaks for God -Society? The individual? A child? Everyone? No one? Or even an animal?
The VVitch is a feat of perfect casting with the stellar, scary Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones) Ralph Ineson (once/always to fans The BBC Office’s Chris Finch a.k.a Finchy) whose dulcet tones bring something entirely new to the classic Dads and their hubristic ways theme of film, Anna Taylor-Joy as the young lead, Thomasin (not a girl, not yet a woman…) and two rugrats as MERCY & JONAS, the creepiest (and darkly funniest- they can really cut a rug and lash a tongue) twins since The Shining. It’s also a feat of animal casting/animal acting.
The film’s genre resisting ways will anger some viewers and thrill others (depending on how fixed they need their genres and how committed they are to some rather exhausted film (horror) tropes. The folk-horror association suits better than other labels (if one is required) as there are elements that seem a throwback to the great, and by now, awkwardly paced and, for today’s overstimulated eyes, maybe unfrightening films made under that banner in the 60s and 70s. As a response to the overly CG-ed, overly jump scared, foolishly twisted (and twists upon twists) torture-porn norms of the last decade or so of horror, the time is right for folk-horror to gather its petticoats and sing its weird, not at all reassuring folk hymns to us as we are awkwardly piled into a wagon with the village shut behind us and the dark woods and empty plains of rural america stretching out ahead. Here lies the endless darkness of our imaginations, our superstitions, our religious brainwashing embedded deeper than splinter into our subconscious.
The VVitch also pleases on the grounds of being one of those films (across a number of genres, but often hovering around thriller territory) whose real preoccupation (or concurrent preoccupation, for there is probably witchcraft afoot here) is the dark depths of a family itself, that nucleus, that dark beating heart, that co-dependency that can turn to fighting over slim pickings of food, to war, to survival of the fittest to the last of your kind over a changing moon. Who’s the favourite? Who needs Mom more? Who’s abandoned in her wake? Who gets her smiles, her coos? Who gets the slap or the strap? Who stands up to Dad, and does anyone stand with them? Who’s the scapegoat? Who forms the angry mob? What is safer, the slowly starving cabin, the half built outbuildings, the haystacks, or do you chance the woods instead? When you’re on the edge of adulthood, you know. Such decisions are then made.
And then there’s the totems, and the signs, and the shadows, and the wishes, and the animals with all their unknown power and passive dark eyes. And among them are a couple of goats, (presumably the lesser of the two is White Philip) AND Black Philip, or as his legions of fans now sometimes call him, BP.
There’s humour underneath all this genre-bending and true-to-text historical rough-hewn costume porn (my kind of porn). There’s a Canadian production, there’s a setting on the edge of our own ample Northern Ontario woods. Our woods. Lifelong, generations back, the subject of adventure, secrecy, sustenance, danger, ghosts, light and dark. The mind fills in where shadows fail to solidify. As long as we’ve sat on the ground we’ve sat around campfires and told the tales and the myths, and the lies with equal conviction, falsely warmed and lit, overheated and getting singed from the nearby flames, while we fight that fingerlike chill down our backs. Backs huddled away from, but unguarded to, those impossibly dark and endless woods. Burn or freeze. Practical concerns- also the concerns of Modernity where inner children rule mercilessly.
The VVitch is something special. It will let you decide what it’s about, and what to take from it. For the curious, for the properly spooked, for those long since bent away from that punishing cross and that rigid old book, left hungry from the pale little wafer, sickened from the hypocrisy and unanswered prayers when they were most needed, it offers choices that for once don’t have you crossing yourself in empty superstition the way The Exorcist or other films used to have the power to do. In the modern way, it offers life as something based on choice, on (in)tolerances, on free will. The choice is unusually bold and clear. Do you dare snatch it?
The VVitch is now available on Blue-ray & DVD
All film stills c. The VVitch (A24 Films)
By Jacqueline Howell