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In 'The Witch' the Old Fantasies Are Terrifingly True

A family in 1630 New England is tormented by dark forces, suggesting the Puritan witch-hunters were right all along.


The Witch

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Rated: R
Studio: A24 Films
Year: 2015
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A shiver machine that runs cool and low with spiritual trepidations and darkly sexual undercurrents, The Witch makes a daring choice. Set in 17th century New England, it wraps primary-sourced dialogue and folklore into a horror story. Writer-director Robert Eggers’ audacious debut imagines that the period’s harum-scarum fright tales about witches are all true. That is, the movie is true to how its subjects perceived their world, assuming that witches and their animal familiars worked as Satan’s agents on Earth, bringing ruination and uncertainty to the faithful.

The first voice we hear is that of a judge pronouncing sentence on a Puritan family. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), is unrepentant. When he refuses to concede to what he calls “false churches”, William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children are banished. Eggers provides a quick glimpse of the rude settlement they are leaving, with its muddy streets and passersby including a couple of inquisitive Indians arrived to trade goods, before locking the gate on our view.

We ride off with the family, creaking along in one overburdened wagon out into the woods. The camera lingers on a wall of trees, looming just beyond the clearing where they erect a home and small barn for their goats and horse.

William’s family is clearly not made for life in the middle of the punishingly lonely nowhere. Only recently landed in the wilds of America from England, they fondly remember what it was like to have windows with glass. His countenance at once stern and yearning, William seems dire, better suited to be a wandering prophet than a farmer. Still, his oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and dutiful son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) devote themselves to making their father proud.

When misfortune hits, the flip side of their unquestioning faith and familial loyalty emerges. At first, it's failing crops. Then a more devastating event befalls them, when Thomasin, tasked with watching her newborn brother, looks away for a second, only to find the baby disappeared.

It’s the sort of thing that a Puritan of the time would blame on some neighbor who must have cursed them. With nobody else around, though, William and Katherine’s blame falls on the woods, the Satanic creature who must be lurking therein, and eventually even their own children, whose youthful frailties and pre-adolescent sexual inquisitiveness become more grist for the guilt mill.

Eggers doesn’t bring the expected psychological, quizzical viewpoint to the terror tightening like a noose around the family. Instead of seeding doubt in the improbability of their worries, the film gives them full life. We see what the family does not, that it is in fact a witch who has taken the baby, a midnight-fright sequence juxtaposing the baby’s vulnerability with the flash of a knife in the dark. We see a haggard old woman, hair blowing in the moonlight, a hut straight out of Hansel and Gretel, bloody body parts in flickering firelight.

After that, the redrum-nonsense songs of the younger twins, and their insistence that they can talk to the goat Black Phillip, start to make a little more sense.

As William reminds Caleb, humans are born degraded sinners into a degraded world. The best they can do is maintain a staunch faith when faced with the Devil's wily temptations, a good number of which are exercised here. Still, the Puritans feared an evil so powerful that they'd be unable to fight it off.

It’s not that different from the internal logic of many horror films, in which victims are killed after making one mistake or another. The Last Girl survives because she does the fewest things wrong. Although The Witch seems to anoint the terrified but stalwart Thomasin early on as that Last Girl, the inevitability of the film’s ever-more phantasmagoric horrors casts even that durable plotline into doubt.

Crafted with a judiciously timed sense of dread and delivery of bloodshed, The Witch is not just stylistically chilling, but unnerving. As inexplicable events cascade, the witch hunt moves from outside to within the family itself. When faith is all, these events can only be explained by a lack of it.

The most frightening thing about The Witch is that it doesn't condemn or rationalize this belief structure. That's not to say that Eggers, by taking the Puritans' fears and overheated fantasies about sexually licentious witches at face value, is endorsing such a structure. But the film's apparent lack of irony leaves open questions of culpability for the historical body count tied to the Puritans’ persecutions. That lack of irony also seems a high price to pay for an admittedly bloody good scare.

The most disturbing element of the film is not, in fact, the possessed animals and intrafamilial violence, but the way it apparently buys into the Puritan viewpoint. The Witch is a work of art that (if they would allow themselves to appreciate non-Godly entertainment) would probably find many fans among the Puritan elders. These would be the very same elders who tortured and executed perceived witches on the flimsiest of slanders.

There's no evidence that Eggers, by representing these fantasies of licentious witches cavorting, is endorsing the spasms of fanatic violence that followed. However, given the body count tied to the Puritans' inquisitions and the legacy of persecutions that followed, the lack of irony or distance in his film's perspective can't help but feel risky, if not downright irresponsible. The Witch is playing with fire.

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