There is a marvellous moment at the beginning of this film. It promises everything, and The Witch does deliver some of that promise. William is banished from the community at the fort. As he takes his family to make lives elsewhere, two Native Americans stop to watch William and his family leave. The two Native Americans look thoughtful and sophisticated. They are men who, apart from their dress, would not look out of a place in a modern city, men who may be wandering between coffee shops and gossip. This is not an anachronism. Instead the moment is a reminder that we forgot how civilised Native Americans greeted the early settlers in the late 16th Century. Marxist historian Howard Zinn in his People’s History Of The United States quotes an early Dutch settler who compares the homes of the Native Americans to the houses he left behind in Amsterdam. The moment in The Witch is marvellous because it reveals how misguided has been the view of Native Americans in Hollywood cinema. This moment alone makes the film essential.
The Witch is a horror film that at times feels like an art house movie. The horror is restrained, and the drama that does exist is suppressed by the daily demands of a harsh existence. This is a strength and a weakness. No doubt the film has an authentic feel. The film, though, mediates against itself, and the events disturb rather than shock. Not everyone feels this way about the film. Stephen King said that he found the film terrifying. Others feel that the film has much to admire but misses opportunities to engage an audience. The trailer is scarier than the film, which may be why the film grossed $40m worldwide. The end title states that the film is based on 17th Century folk tales and historical accounts of witchcraft.
The dialogue in the film is taken from these accounts. William and his family are from Yorkshire and, like the dialogue, the accents in the movie are genuine. Ralph Ineson is famous for his appearances in Game Of Thrones. He is a fan of Leeds United Football Club and can claim that he was already acquainted with horror before he made the film. His traumas inside Elland Road may have inspired his convincing performance as William.
The Witch is set in 17th Century New England and was jointly financed in the USA and Canada. Presumably American writer and director Robert Eggers felt it important to have a Yorkshire family in his film. He may have been persuaded to tell the tale of a Yorkshire family by what he read in historical accounts. $25m dollar ticket sales in the USA suggest that American audiences coped with formal language spoken in a strong Northern accent. The trailer was good but word of mouth did the film no harm.
Eggers creates authentic history through imaginative detail and a loyalty to the drudge of mediaeval agriculture. This is the real merit of the film. The audience is given a not to be missed experience of the family life of the pilgrim settlers. Katherine is the mother in the film. When she refers to ‘Indian magic’, it feels like a genuine reference to unusual but accepted neighbours. The Northern accents, at least for this Northerner, connect the family to the modern world. The family may be pious but they are human. Piety offers calm moments but it does not transform existence. William and his family are defined by conflict, ignorance, the struggle for survival and, inevitably, frustration and rattled nerves. These Northerners may be remote from the modern world but they have more in common with Northerners from the early part of the 20th Century than do the Northern people of today. There is a family drama in The Witch that is based on mistrust, paranoia, guilt and the perceived betrayal of Christ. Ignore the religious element, and William and his family could figure in an early episode of Coronation Street.
The accusations of witchcraft that the family make to each other evoke The Crucible, the stage play by Arthur Miller. In The Witch, though, the Devil and witches do exist. Miller was interested in human weakness and its potential to inflict harm. For Miller to make his point the witches of Salem were important because they did not exist. For his film Eggers has drawn from both folk tales and accounts of the persecution of women accused of witchcraft. This conflation adds ideas to the film but it weakens the arguments. William and his family are twisted by excess piety but, when the Devil is in the barn and witches really are in the forest, the failures of the family in the film can be forgiven. Perhaps William and his family are no more than tragic and authentic individuals. Whether flawed and misguided or decent victims, neither interpretation quite convinces.
At the end of the film we hear the Devil in the barn. He asks the eldest daughter Thomasin if she ‘wouldst though like to live deliciously and see the world.’ Up to that point there has been no hint in the film that sin can yield pleasure or gratification. Temptation for these puritans consists not of submitting to indulgence but making the wrong choice between Christ and the Devil. The evil urge has been no more than the desire to meet a creature that is best ignored. The words of the Devil to Thomasin have a fine poetical ring. But they weaken the unusual concept of temptation that exists in the film prior to the encounter and that adds definition to characters whose restricted lives are dominated by hard work and religious discipline. It is unfortunate that the original concept is undermined by a fancy phrase.
The witch in the wood wears a red cloak and she is an obvious reference to the folk tale Little Red Riding Hood. The English author Angela Carter was a feminist and her work has been described as magical realism. Carter argued that Little Red Riding Hood was a story about the sexual appetite of the male and how men could be destroyed by female power and virtue or, because of the misogyny in human history and storytelling, the witch that exists in all women. The Little Red Riding Hood in The Witch has a lot of cleavage and is sexy. She also appears in the film as an old crone bathing her wrinkled body in the blood of a kidnapped baby. The reference to Little Red Riding Hood feels trite.
The horror in the film is restrained. Most of it is not seen by the audience. The most disturbing moments that are explicit occur when eldest daughter Thomasin draws blood from the teat of a goat and during a short fight near the end of the film. The rest of the horror is suggested but the suggestions, because they involve maltreatment of children, are unsettling. The end credits reveal that a mental health counsellor was employed as a member of the film crew. The counsellor may have helped with the plot because of the obsessions of the characters in The Witch but it may have been because the producers were worried about the effect of the material on child actors.
The film is best about piety and banishment. William quotes piety as a blessing but for this family it becomes a curse. Trust in God is important because it is important to the trust in each other that the family needs if it is to conquer the wilderness. Piety, though, can also nurture self-hatred, paranoia and guilt. The innocent and pious will find lyrical purity in existence. The flawed, if still dependent on piety, can become hysterical. William may pray to God for light to relieve the darkness but he only achieves ease when he uses his rage to chop wood. William has so much pious anger that his pile of chopped wood is as tall as the cabin in which his family lives.
Everyone in The Witch has been banished from somewhere. Even the community that banishes William for challenging the gospel of his Church consists of the banished. Human beings fear banishment and really like a welcome. This is why welcomes are ritualised in our manners and languages. Someone saying hello and shaking hands is flattering. God and the Devil both welcome people. The family in The Witch, to survive, needs to ensure none are banished by the others. Once individual banishment is considered by the family, ruin will follow. Thomasin is alienated and hostile after she hears that her mother and family are considering sending her to work for another family. The fear of banishment encourages people to accuse and banish others. The Devil waits and collects the wreckage.
In The Witch the forest at night is a place of mystery and terror. The notion is present in folk tales and was important to mediaeval society. Before the Agricultural Revolution humans were not afraid of the forest. Humans would set fire to the trees and let them burn until they were nothing but charred stumps. Hungry humans would walk through the wreckage to collect the dead animals for food. After wheat was grown and the early priests took control of the granaries the rich and powerful needed to keep folk working in the fields. The forest was recreated in the imagination as a place of terror and monsters. Satanic societies in the USA have welcomed The Witch as a cultural breakthrough that will liberate humans from the oppression established by priests whose main concern was the wheat yield. If the Satanists are expecting us all to live deliciously, they should hold their breath. The Witch is not as thematic as it pretends. It is, though, a fine film and very different. It confirms that cinema, through silence, suspense, and a zealous attention to detail, can not only provide added meaning and atmosphere to folk tales but also expand our narrow notion of the lives that existed in the past.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.