The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Witch: A New England Folktale

Robert Eggers 2015

In a seventeenth-century North American colony, an English immigrant and his family are expelled from the settlement because of his refusal to adhere to the local religious doctrine. Except for a couple of sojourns in the forest, the rest of the film takes place entirely on the family's dreary attempt at a farm, where God has evidently decided to punish the man's pride by playing some of His trademark practical jokes. They start relatively small, with the failure of the corn crop and the threat of mere starvation; they end, amid abject pleas for divine mercy and terrifying displays of pious wrath, in horror and death.

Despite the drab setting - overcast exteriors and dark interiors, using only natural light - the film is beautifully shot, making fine claustrophobic use of its limited setting and small population. Mark Korven's score maintains the atmosphere nicely, sounding at one point very much like the unearthly Ligeti choruses used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As with Kubrick's The Shining and many others among the better breed of horror films, the psychological and the supernatural elements are both clearly present; what is harder to distinguish is where each leaves off and the other begins. There is no way of telling whether the blood milked from the nanny-goat springs from natural or supernatural causes, just as there is no unambiguous sign as to whether the apple vomited up by one character in extremis is simply a lump of fruit or something more Adamic. Similarly, when the twins forget their prayers or when the mother is tempted by visions, no demons appear to provide a clue to the cause; the black hare in the woods and the charmingly-named black billy-goat on the farm never sprout CGI fangs or bat-wings to help the Hollywood-minded keep up.

Nevertheless, The Witch contains plenty of genuine scares, and some of the most effective result from the hoary device of a sudden grab or impact from off-screen. This could easily look cheap (as in most films it would be), but here it is a highly effective stylistic choice, emphasising the characters' fatally narrow perspective and obsessive persistence in seeking salvation in the wrong place. An even braver artistic choice was the use of antiquated dialogue; too much has been made of its supposed impenetrability and, as in Tony Richardson's Charge of the Light Brigade, it serves both as an aid to realism and an effective distancing device.

Unimpeachably acted, the characters are, almost without exception, a sorry lot. The father is a coward and a hypocrite, whose response when confronted with his shortcomings is to throw his accuser into prison; the mother yearns for the Saviour whom she once saw in a dream, but regards the taking of her offspring unto that Saviour's bosom largely as an excuse to hate her daughter. The elder brother is a pious pubescent brought low by his gonads, and the young twins are calculating little psychopaths whose main interest seems to be getting their elder sister burned at the stake. In the end only a single doubter is able to escape the horror and, with ambiguously supernatural help, to rise above the gruesome and treacherous pieties of family and faith.


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