Tuesday, February 23, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Witch

The Witch (or The V V ITCH, as the poster says) was written and directed by Robert Eggers. It appears that this is both his writing and directorial debut.


I was absolutely gobsmacked by the near universal praise this film has received, as literally every review I've seen claims it's the scariest movie ever made and/or the best horror film in years.

It is absolutely neither of those things. Unsettling and disturbing, yes. But terrifying? Hardly. To quote a phrase I've used many times before, it was about as scary as a basket of kittens.

I was extremely disappointed by the film and was all set to write a scathing review that ripped it a new bunghole. 

Then a funny thing happened I found I couldn't stop thinking about the film. You might even say it was haunting me. After two or three days it actually started to grow on me a bit, to the point where I'm actually starting to like it somewhat. Weird, huh?

I see now that the film's horror doesn't come from the titular Witch or anything supernatural, but from the family itself. Their extreme religious fervor is the real horror in the film. It's their uncompromising mania that leads to their own downfall, and by the end they almost make the witches look sympathetic.

This is a family whose religious beliefs are so intense that they're thrown out of their Puritan colony! Think about that for a minute. The Puritans were a pretty severe and humorless bunch, but even they thought this particular family needed to turn it down a notch or twelve.

These are people who can't even walk across the room without thanking God for his help, and who believe every single action, no matter how trivial or insignificant, is a heinous sin that must be forgiven and atoned for. Such over the top religious beliefs are just as dangerous and insidious as witchcraft.

Once I realized this, I changed my mind about the film. Oh, it's still a failure as an actual horror film, but as a look at the menace of extreme religious fervor, it's actually not that bad. In fact you could remove the Witch and all the supernatural elements and the film would still work as a study in the perils of intolerance and zealotry.

Case in point— it only takes one accusation by a couple of stupid kids to turn the entire family against their own daughter, and believe she's a witch. These are not stable people.

For most of the run time the family's misfortunes can be taken two ways. Either they've been cursed by actual supernatural forces, or their repressed beliefs begin snowballing into their own downfall. It's not until the final ten minutes or so that we find out which it is (you can probably guess the answer).

Unfortunately that's where the film fell apart for me. Up until the end, everything that happens could have had an ordinary cause. Caleb could just have a fever instead of a curse. The crops could just have a normal everyday blight. A wolf could have stolen the baby. We're never given any evidence that supernatural forces or witches are a possibility and actually exist in this world. Yes, there's a witch, but she could just be a crazy old woman who lives in the woods.

Suddenly at the end the rules change, and we're abruptly shown that yes, witchcraft is indeed real. Goats really can talk, children can be cursed and witches can fly around on brooms. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me.

The film has an eerie sense of oppression and dread, which comes mostly from the unsettling Kubrick-esque soundtrack. In fact the atonal, dissonant music is the scariest thing about the entire movie.

It's a slow-burn film that takes its sweet time, which I didn't mind. However, if a movie's going to make an audience sit through endless scenes of little or nothing happening, it had better be building up to something. Unfortunately the final scene is a bit underwhelming.

According to the interwebs, the film's budget was only $3 million dollars. That's unbelievable in this day and age of two hundred million dollar blockbusters. No matter how badly this film may perform at the box office, that minuscule budget absolutely guarantees it'll turn a profit.


The Plot:
In 1630s New England, a man named William (no last names, please), his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb and twins Mercy and Jonas, are banished from their Puritanical community. The family leaves and finds a dreary patch of land at the edge of a dense and omimous forest, where they build a farm and start their new lives. After several months Katherine gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Things start to go downhill from there.

Thomasin babysits Samuel, playing peekaboo with him. In the two seconds her eyes are hidden, something snatches Samuel away. The audience (but not the characters) see he was taken by a witch who lives in the forest. She kills the baby and rubs its blood and entrails all over her saggy, bloated body.

Katherine is devastated by the loss, and spends all her time praying to God for Samuel's return. Shortly after this the family's crops begin rotting in the fields. William and Caleb go hunting in the woods. Caleb's concerned that Samuel will be condemned to hell since he died before he was baptized. William tells him not to worry about it. 

William confesses to Caleb that he sold Katherine's prized silver cup to buy hunting supplies, and to not mention it to her. This will become a huge deal in just a little bit. William sees a rabbit in the forest. When he shoots at it, his gun backfires. It's not nice to shoot at witches, William!

Back on the farm, the twins are driving everyone crazy by taunting Black Phillip, the family's goat. Katherine, who blames Thomasin for Samuel's death, accuses her of stealing the silver cup. That night Katherine tells William that she wants to send Thomasin away to be married. Thomasin and Caleb overhear this, which isn't hard as their house consists of a small two story cabin.

The next day Caleb decides to run away from home, so Thomasin won't have to be sent away. Thomasin follows him onto the forest on horseback. Caleb sees the same wild rabbit from before and chases it deeper into the woods. The horse gets spooked and throws Thomasin, knocking her out.

Caleb stumbles onto the Witch's house. She appears to him not as a horrible old crone, but as a young, sexy seductress. She grabs him and kisses him. Thomasin wakes up and returns to the farm. Katherine blames her for the death of yet another child. She also openly accuses her of stealing the cup, and still resents her even after William confesses he sold it.

Thomasin goes to check on the animals and finds Caleb stumbling toward the house, naked and shivering. She brings him inside, and the family puts him to bed and begins praying over him. He begins having a violent seizure and coughs up a bloody apple (!). He then babbles about his love of Christ and lays back and dies.

The twins accuse Thomasin of being a witch and killing Caleb. She accuses them right back, because they're always cavorting with Black Phillip and that's apparently a witchy thing to do. William has enough of all the witch crap and seals the kids into the stable. Unfortunately he doesn't put his wife in there too.

Later that night the Witch enters the stable and drinks the blood of the goats, terrifying Thomasin and the twins. Meanwhile, Katherine hallucinates and sees Caleb and Samuel, still alive. She begins joyfully breast feeding Samuel. In reality, a black crow is sitting on her lap, pecking at her breast. Yikes.

The next day William wakes to find the stable destroyed and the twins dead on the ground. He's then gored by Black Phillip and falls against a huge, and I do mean huge, pile of firewood. It collapses and kills him. Thomasin crawls from the rubble of the stable. She's attacked by Katherine, who tries to strangle her. Thomasin grabs a nearby knife and stabs Katherine to death.

Later Black Phillip appears and begins talking to Thomasin. Yep, talking. When she agrees to serve him, he takes the form of a dimly glimpsed Satan. She removes her clothing and follows Black Phillip into the forest. She sees a bonfire, surrounded by naked witches changing and writhing on the ground. Suddenly they levitate into the air. Thomasin levitates too, laughing. Smash cut to black.

• All the characters in the film speak in authentic period dialogue, peppered with lots of "thees" and "thous." That I could handle. Unfortunately they also speak in very thick Yorkshire accents, which was very difficult to understand.

There's a scene in which William and Caleb have a long conversation while hunting in the forest, and I could only understand about twenty percent of what they were saying. Eh, that's OK. I'm sure whatever they were talking about had no relevance to the plot or anything.

My kingdom for some subtitles!

 Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie star as William and Katherine, the parents of the family.

You may recognize Ineson as Chris Finch, the proto-Todd Packer from the British version of The Office. He also played Dagmer Cleftjaw (now THAT'S a name!) on Game Of Thrones

Dickie was also on Game Of Thrones playing Lysa Arryn, because by this point every actor in Great Britain has been on that show.

 While hunting in the woods, William shoots at a wild rabbit, which I guess is supposed to either be the Witch or one of her familiars. His gun backfires in his face, and he crawls around on the ground pawing at his eyes and moaning in agony.

From his anguished screams, I assumed he was going to spend the rest of the film blinded. But the next time we see him he's perfectly fine. He doesn't even have any powder burns on his face!

I get that the Witch was using her powers to protect herself from William's gun and prevent him from hunting for survival, which would doom the family to starvation. But what was up with the odd backfire fake out?

 After the twins get Black Phillip all riled up, William tries to calm him down and is knocked backward into a pile of manure. Thomasin takes his soiled clothes to the nearby stream to try and wash them.

A few minutes later Caleb comes by to fetch water. He dips a bucket into the creek, just a few feet downstream from where Thomasin's washing her dad's feces-smeared clothing.

No need to worry about salmonella, listeria or worms, guys. Something else'll probably kill you long before any of those do.

• After Thomasin kills her mother, she wanders into the remains of the stable and confronts Black Phillip. She stares straight ahead at the camera, and we hear his offscreen voice as he actually speaks to her.

Having the goat speak off camera was definitely a good choice on the part of the director. Can you imagine how stupid it would have looked if, in the middle of this realistic film, we suddenly saw a goat speaking, like a demonic Mr. Ed?

• Much has been made about the fact that writer/director Eggers spent several years researching the period of the 1620s to make sure the dialogue, clothing and even the farm buildings were as authentic as possible.

So what? Why is that such a big deal? Shouldn't that be a given whenever someone films an historical piece? It should be par for the course, not something worthy of a medal.

The Witch is a disturbing film that's a complete and utter failure as a horror movie. On the other hand, as a warning of the dangers of extreme religious frenzy, it's pretty darned good. Unfortunately it's damaged somewhat by a late-stage tonal change that completely alters the film's reality, and in a less than satisfactory manner. Despite all that, you'll still be thinking about it days after you see it. I wouldn't rush out to catch it, but it's worth a look on home video. I give it a B-.

Second Opinion: I recently re-watched the film, and came away with a completely new appreciation for it. It's definitely not a typical jump scare type of horror movie, but it features a feeling of dread that permeates every single frame. I'm still not a fan of the late-stage tonal shift, but I've grown to like it much more after a second viewing. It's still not for everyone, but I now give it a more reasonable B+.

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