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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Witch: Mining the Roots of American Horror for a Deliciously Disturbing Modern Masterpiece

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.

As you may know, I enjoy horror movies. However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that most horror movies are the cinematic equivalent of junk food (and I love junk food!). I love them all, but I especially cherish those that go beyond being fun horror experiences and enter the realm of being not just great horror cinema, but great cinema, period. Films like 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.

All the credit in the world goes to Eggers, a production and costume designer astonishingly making his feature film writing and directing debut with what feels like the work of a seasoned, insightful craftsman. He has thoroughly researched the life and beliefs of 17th century Puritan settlers not in a useless or masturbatory way, but all in the service of building a story that is like an Elizabethan-era folktale come to life. Having been fascinated with the topic myself in the past, I adored the way in which he captured that Puritan paranoia, as well as the fervent, fundamentalist Christianity that helped perpetuate a great deal of lunacy in early American times. It's like Cotton Mather's worst nightmare come to life.

One of the more fascinating things about the film is that it presents these terrible fears of witchcraft and Satanism not just as metaphors, but also as concrete realities. Yes, the film has a symbolic message about the dangers of unchecked patriarchy and religious hysteria, but make no mistake--in Eggers' world, the Devil and his magically powered minions are very much real. This is period drama, but it is also very much supernatural horror as well, and not ashamed of it.

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.

And yet, she is rejected by her family. She is seen as a threat and burden by her mother Katherine, played with stern desperation by Kate Dickie, perhaps best known for her performance as the batty, breastfeeding Lysa Arryn on Game of Thrones. Her younger brother Caleb (breathtaking child actor Harvey Scrimshaw), at the very beginning of his sexual awakening in such a repressive environment, can't help but begin to view her in an erotic fashion. And her fiendishly precocious youngest siblings, the twins Mercy and Jonas, are terrified and outraged at the willfulness they see burgeoning inside her, labeling her a witch with the same childish zeal that undoubtedly led many innocent women to their deaths in Salem.

Thomasin is both tempted and horrified by the potential presence of Satanic forces in the woods near their homestead. Gradually but confidently, Eggers paints a picture of encroaching doom, as the family is preyed upon by this force and picked off, one by one. As with many horror films of the 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.

There is moral ambiguity at play here which only adds to the richness of the experience. William's religious fervor and pride, coupled with his practical ineptness, has recklessly condemned his family to poverty and near-starvation. It is painful to watch these folks praying desperately to a God who simply does not seem to be listening, or to care, all while a cruel intelligence tears them apart. Clearly, part of Eggers' message is the futility of blind faith, and in fact the harmfulness of it. The family members turn against each other, and the Devil and his minions use each of their weaknesses against them: William's pride and stubbornness, Katherine's attachment to her children, Caleb's sexual curiosity, and even Thomasin's desire for freedom.

Chafing at the bonds of her father's faith, her future seemingly dictated by his choices, she embraces the darkness in the end, giving in to the frightening voice inside her that was pushing her toward it all along. And yet, in Eggers' world, this is not the black-and-white issue the Puritans themselves may have viewed it as. Forced to accept the inherent sinfulness of her nature as preached endlessly by her father, she could not even enjoy the acceptance and affection of family, but was constantly pushed away by parents and siblings she loved. Instead, she finds unconditional acceptance, and yes, freedom at last, in the silken, soothing tones of Black Phillip and the release and power offered to his followers. Moments after being compelled to murder her own mother in self-defense, she seems to heave a figurative sigh of relief, and her first instinctive actions are to literally let her hair down and remove the attire that had kept her physically and emotionally bound up. In the final moments of the film, she rises above everything, once again quite literally, and exults in complete and total joy. It is thrilling, cathartic, and terrifying, all at once.

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.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and composer Mark Korven both contribute greatly to achieving Eggers' vision of inevitable gloom and despair. Blaschke's work is bleak and understated, recalling some of the best work of Kubrick lensman John Alcott. And Korven, best known for his work in documentaries, delivers a chilling, relentless aural onslaught that is part Philip Glass, part Gyorgy Ligeti.

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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