Bless me Father, for I have sinned.
It has been 27 months since my last blog post. Life has gotten quite busy for ol' B-Sol, including writing gigs that pay actual money, and so the Vault has been collecting dust for quite some time. And yet, I am compelled to blow off that dust (for now, at least) and lift the lid on the Vault, thanks to a film which I can honestly say is the finest horror movie I have seen this decade thus far. Not only that, but one of the finest films of any kind that I have seen in some time. It is rare that a film like Robert Eggers' The Witch comes along, and I feel I must discuss it, in the most effective forum I have at my disposal.
Let the Right One In, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, etc. do more than make us jump out of our seat, and give us more than gross-outs and one-liners. They stand the test of time as pieces of art, put together by masters of the form. I believe that The Witch is one of these films, and will take its place among them. In fact, I haven't been this impressed with a horror film since Tomas Alfredson's aforementioned 2008 vampire coming-of-age fable.
I should mention that this is a review/discussion intended really for those who have already seen the film, so you spoilerphobic types should skidaddle at this point. There is much to talk about in this rich, marvelously constructed and directed motion picture, and some of it has to do with some important plot and character moments.
Virtual unknown (not for long) Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin, the repressed teenage daughter of renegade fundamentalist preacher William, played by gravel-voiced veteran British actor Ralph Ineson. Thomasin longs deep down to be free of her drab and spartan life, especially after her father's extremist ways force even the Puritans to say, "Hey, this guy is kind of a looney tune," and banish the whole family from the community and into the terrifying, untamed New England wilderness. She longs for sweeter times at home in England, and seeks emotional escape through playfulness and imaginative flights of fancy.
Satanic subgenre, there seems to be an implicit message that the Devil exists, but God does not--or at least if He does, He is far less directly manifest than His dark counterpart, preferring to have His followers stick it out for themselves rather than intervene directly. In typical Puritan distrust of the natural world, here the Lord of Darkness takes animal form, as a rabbit, a crow, and most memorably of all, in the form of the family's prize goat, Black Phillip, a creature who has enthusiasts of the film (including this one) singing his praises like so many black sabbath revelers.
This is a film without easy answers, that challenges our beliefs as great art should. Is Thomasin's character arc the ultimate expression of feminist independence, or a reinforcement of the very anti-feminist stereotypes promulgated by Puritans both then and now? From where I sit, Eggers seems to be using the reported accounts of witchcraft from those olden days to weave a very modern story that delivers a moral that probably would've been abhorrent to the religious thinkers of that time. It is about the rejection of a constrictive society for the liberty of hedonistic indulgence, and not necessarily as a bad thing. And it generates fear on a deep, primal level.
Such work enhances some of the most disturbing imagery I've encountered in horror in a long time. Caleb's death scene, played with shocking maturity by young Scrimshaw, is something from which I fear the hairs on the back of my neck may never fully recover. Caleb's encounter with the witch in the woods, a moment that would make the Brothers Grimm proud. Katherine's breast-feeding scene (a Game of Thrones inside joke, perhaps?) makes the last scene of Paul Solet's Grace seem like Elmo's World. And the unexpected moment (for me, at least) when Black Phillip does indeed speak and the Devil reveals himself made me gasp in enthralled shock.
Horror often gets a bad rap for being a genre that seeks primarily to make us feel a basic human emotion, as if that were a negative in and of itself, something cheap or undesirable. It's very encouraging to find one that makes us feel in such an emotionally complex way, and also makes us think. The Witch is a powerful piece of film that represents the best that horror can be--less Eli Roth, and more Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's one that I'll certainly be revisiting many times in the years to come, and was more than worth the effort of delving back into The Vault of Horror one more time. If you haven't seen it, do so. If you have, see it again.
Oh yeah, and Hail Black Phillip.
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