Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bothered and Bewitched

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (2015)

The Witch (2015, directed by Robert Eggers) has been the new big thing in the horror genre since it debuted at Sundance last year. Like the last new big thing in horror--take your pick between It Follows, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, or what have you--it's a film with ambitions beyond the canned thrills of genre horror. It's a film that gazes into the abyss of America's myths about itself and about its founding and finds the abyss gazing back. The result is a bitches brew of feminist rage, religious critique, and a lacerating demolition of the ideal of the American as individualist. This is a horror movie as art film, true. It has the deliberate, slow burn of a contemporary art film. But that doesn't mean it skimps on the horror. No. Not at all. It ends on notes of such profound disquiet and shock that it renders moot the idea that they don't make genuinely shocking horror movies anymore. This is the real deal.

Note: here there be spoylers.

The plot of The Witch follows the fortunes of a family expelled from the Plymouth plantation for heresy. The father, William, is a zealous man, to whom the Christian fundamentalism of the Puritans wasn't extreme enough. He and his family are banished from the plantation and head into the unsettled New England woods to hew a life for themselves from the wilderness. William has a wife, Katherine, two daughters, and three sons. The eldest child, Thomasin, is almost an adult. The youngest child, Samuel, is newborn. In between are Caleb, the eldest son, and the twins, Jonas and Mercy. As the eldest daughter, Thomasin is charged with babysitting Samuel. One day, during a game of peekaboo, Samuel vanishes. The family searches, but cannot find him. Has he wandered into the woods? Has he been taken by a wolf? Or has something more sinister happened to him? Thomasin comes under her mother's scrutiny. She is not trusted. Misfortune follows misfortune: the farm is failing and the family hasn't enough food to last the winter. William takes his wife's silver cup and trades it to the Indians for traps, but the traps are empty. The twins play games with the family's goat, Black Phillip, and accuse their older sister of being a witch, which Thomasin plays up to get them to behave. This backfires in spectacular fashion. William and Katherine begin to plan on sending Thomasin back into town. To avert this, Caleb plans to round up game from the traps in the forest. Thomasin won't let him go without him. Caleb ends up chasing a sinister rabbit into the forest, while a spooked horse throws Thomasin. Caleb is lost. Thomasin is found. When Caleb eventually wanders home, he's on the edge of death from exposure. The twins accuse Thomasin of witchcraft, an accusation Thomasin throws right back at them for their games with Black Phillip. William confines them all while Katherine mourns for Caleb. Meanwhile, supernatural forces gather in the night...

According to the end credits, The Witch takes whole passages of dialogue and incident from contemporary diaries and court records. Colonial New England in the 17th century was a land haunted by superstition and religious terror. Although Salem, Massachusetts is notorious for its witch trials, it is by no means unique. At least twelve other "witches" were executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut before the Salem executions. Witches and devils were very real to the early New Englanders. It's not for nothing that New England haunts the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King. Its reliance on documentary sources makes The Witch a hybrid film, an amalgam of fiction and non-fiction. You see this, too, in the film's production design, which has an obsessive attention to period details. If the world of this film seems alien to a contemporary audience or even to an audience weened on more European Gothics, it grounds its otherness in a firm reality. This is important to the film's overall effect.

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (2015)

I may be presumptuous in describing the film's world as alien, though, because the contemporary United States is as much a slave to superstition and religion and patriarchy as 17th century New England. For all its period trappings, The Witch has very serious things to say about the contemporary body politic. The othering of women as witches when they won't submit to patriarchy is something that continues to this very day. Pat Robertson once described feminism thusly:

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

This is not some historical relic. Robertson said this in 1992, and has been spouting similar things unto this very day. So the accusations of witchcraft directed at Thomasin have a contemporary feel. Thomasin is not in charge of her own sexuality. When her younger brother has sexual thoughts about his sister, it's her fault, not his. When Caleb eventually stumbles home, naked and quivering, it's Thomasin who comes under enhanced scrutiny as the one who led him astray. Nevermind that Thomasin is never shown to be disobedient or disrespectful, until she finally stands up to the false accusations she has endured. Thomasin's ultimate embrace of witchcraft as an escape from patriarchy at the end of the movie has a perverse catharsis underlying it.

The identity of the eponymous witch is the subject of much speculation throughout the film. We are shown that there IS a witch early in the film, when Samuel's fate at the hands of his abductress is shown. But who is she? Is she some presence in the woods outside of Thomasin's family? Are Thomasin's twin siblings agents of witchcraft? Thomasin's mother, in a paroxysm of grief embraces witchcraft in one of the film's most startling scenes. This is a film where the dichotomy of inside and outside horror collapses on itself. The horror is everywhere.

The only character seemingly untouched by witchcraft is William, whose pride won't allow him to bend to the authority of the Puritans in Plymouth. William is the American libertarian ideal of the radical individual. He's Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, a man so possessed of the rightness of his views that he has no use for anyone else. Damn society! He'll go it alone. This film puts this idea under a speculum. Humans are social animals. We know this from anthropology and sociology and from the uncomfortable fact that the worst punishment you can deal to a human being is to isolate her from human contact. This is why solitary confinement is so horrible. William has severed his family from the body of humankind and they predictably go mad as a result. This has repercussions for the narrative. Are the phenomena these characters interpret as witchcraft even real? Is this a reliable narrative? Or is it the result of religious hysteria combined with isolation and the formidable vastness of the unconquered wilderness? This isn't the first film to suggest that America was wrought from the wilderness by lunatics rather than pioneers, but it's among the most forceful.

The Witch (2015)

This is a sophisticated art object, carefully composed in the manner of quieter artists like Vermeer or Rembrandt or John Singleton Copley, all of whom the film specifically quote in its shot compositions. Late in the film, its influences shift to Benjamin Christensen's Witchcraft Through the Ages and Francisco Goya. Goya is a superficially similar artist to Rembrandt, so the film manages to stay in the same visual key even as it shifts to the grotesque. It's all of a piece.

For all its arty sophistication, this is a film that knows its way around the horror genre, too. You see this in its first minutes, when Thomasin plays peekaboo with Samuel. The shot, reverse shot structure, with Thomasin in the center of the frame looking down at the camera directly addresses the audience, to whom she repeatedly says, "Boo!" This is one of the film's best meta-cinematic moments. It's diegetic, organic to the story on screen, necessary to that story even, but it's also an invitation to the audience to experience this as a horror story. As a horror story, it has a diagrammatic simplicity. At a fundamental level, at the level of the reptile brain, this is a film about people huddled around a fire wondering what's making those horrible noises out beyond the firelight. It's almost atavistic.

There's an element of survival narrative in the forlorn circumstances in which this film's family find themselves and the film sometimes seems like that's the direction it's heading. But the slow accumulation of sinister moments--many of them as mundane as corn cobs that are going bad or a hare staring at the camera from a clearing or twin children playing with a goat--create a mounting sense of dread and make a promise to a patient viewer: "Yes, this is an observational drama for now, but just you wait."

When the cloud bursts at the end of the movie, when blood is spilled, and the film begins to move beyond quotidian menace into baroque horror tableaux, this patience pays off. The shot of Katherine feeding her new familiar, for one instance, hits like a steamroller, as does William's struggle with Black Phillip and Thomasin's final confrontation with her mother. This is a film that keeps its promises to the audience. And yet, it stays true to its own imp of the perverse, too. Its ending subverts the idea that Christianity or Patriarchy or even social order are "good" or desirable. This is the return of the radical horror films of the 1960s like Witchfinder General or Night of the Living Dead, where, having loosed chaos upon the world, it suggests that the world deserves it.

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Anonymous said...

Great blog post. Out of curiousity is the title of this post a reference to the song "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered?" If so very creative and even if its not I still love it.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

It is indeed a reference to that song. Thanks!