The Witch: A review
Spoilers! (I don’t give away the end sequence)
In the 1982 movie, Poltergeist, Zarina, (Zelda Rubenstein) the psychic called to cleanse the Freeling house and find little Carol Anne, warns: “He knows what scares you—don’t give him any help . . .” The only supernatural movie that surpasses Poltergeist on my scare-o-meter is The Exorcist.
I like a good scare. When it comes to a real life, I’m a chicken. But as long as it’s fiction, let ghosts haunt, demons possess, vampires stalk and witches cast their spells. Every month, new horror pictures are released to the theatres. The ones I’ve seen recently include: Crimson Peak, The Boy, Sinister 2, Insidious 3, The Conjuring, Annabelle, The Last Witch Hunter, the latest Paranormal, and The Witch.
Of the movies I just listed, none were truly scary, though the first Sinister was effective in creating a sense of dread. I think this was because the script didn’t telegraph what was really going on. You knew that it involved demons, the consequences of the father’s pride and ambition and one of their children. At the end, a child’s chilling detachment from her family underscored the malleability of a child’s loyalty and ability to bond emotionally with a new caretaker at the expense of the discarded ones. The scary part for me? As far as the child was concerned, it was all so casual.
The sequel, Sinister 2 was less effective because the protagonist was armed with some understanding of what he was up against. He had a plan. The more you understand, in my opinion, the less you fear. Insidious 3 covered a lot of the same territory the previous Insidious films did. Annabelle and The Conjuring had moments but couldn’t compare to the stunning shivers and heroics of good against a powerful evil that The Exorcist delivered.
The CGI wielded by The Last Witch Hunter was impressive (especially those gummy bears), but most of the sequences were confusing and complicated. As the only hope against the world being cast into witchy darkness and being forced to deal with lots of gnarled trees and weeds, Vin Diesel as the beefy but urbane hero was one note.
The Witch didn’t scare me, but it did stay with me. I found it disquieting. Scenes from it stayed with me after I left the theater. Of the several reviews I read, online and in print, many found the supernatural aspect of The Witch to be head-under-the-covers bone-chilling. The film was full of supernatural happenings but I was never sure where they were actually taking place—in the forest or in the imagination of this religion soaked family. What really happened to the baby? Was it witches, or the fearful imaginings of people so familiar with the Devil that they avoided Lucifer as if he were a slacker relative who was ready to move into the spare bedroom, raid the refrigerator, drink all the beer and run up the pay per view bill?
The Witch, written and directed by production designer, Robert Eggars (Hansel and Gretel, Tell Tale Heart) had some elements in common with Sinister. Family uprooted by father—check. Isolated house—check. Father who thinks he knows best but doesn’t—check. Hints of incest—this is where Sinister and The Witch part company.
In The Witch, sex—or the lack of it plays a major part in what happens.
The story begins in 1630 New England, where in a small settlement a family faces the township elders. It seems Dad is even stricter about his religious beliefs than a town full of Puritans. No, he won’t back down. In fact, he’s such a pain in the backside that when it’s clear he won’t bend, he’s encouraged to leave the settlement.
Leaving what little civilization there is, the family travels on a wagon full of worldly goods plus a few chickens as it lumbers toward the unknown. They stop at what seems to be the perfect spot—a clearing with a stream nearby. They all drop to their knees in prayer. Not far is a line of dense trees, the entrance to a forest. A short time later, there’s a house with smoke snaking from the chimney and some scattered structures that signal progress. But all is not well in the new Eden. The crops are dying.
Although the parents, Katherine (Kate Dickie-Prometheus, Game of Thrones) amd William (Ralph Ineson-Prometheus) have a loving relationship, there are tensions. Katherine resents being uprooted, not only from the town, but also from England, which she sorely misses. William’s certitude in staking out a more Godly life at the edge of a sinister forest begins to falter as things go relentlessly wrong. The crops fail; William can’t hunt nor can his dog. Then the unthinkable happens—the youngest child, infant Samuel vanishes.
We, the audience witness the infant’s terrible fate at the hands of a witch, however I couldn’t help wondering if this was reality or a window into the fears of the desperate parents. Speaking of windows, the oldest, the twelve-year old (I’m guessing) girl, Thomasin, played by talented newcomer, Ana Taylor-Joy (Atlantis) tells brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw—also new and very talented) that in London there were real windows. She wistfully describes how beautiful the windows were.
As the family struggles to prepare for the coming winter, the two youngest children (boy and girl twins) torment a goat named Black Phillip. The manic giggles and chatter of these two are weird, especially when they insist that Black Phillip talks to them. Their antics suggest the unstable underpinnings of the Puritan belief system and it’s easy to make the connection to the Salem witch trials. Wild fantasies are the only excitement in a truly dreary existence.
Being able to see clearly what’s outside his religious fantasy is a major problem for William. His beliefs dictate his reality. William is so enamored with the idea of his Godly homestead that he fails to see the risks. Aware of the growing peril, he clings to a rigid ethic. He can’t go back empty-handed. Rather than loading up the wagon and getting the hell away from the forest and imminent starvation, he keeps setting goals and failing. Like the menacing family goat (and maybe the Devil), Black Phillip, William balks at being bossed around, especially by Katherine.
Understandably, Katherine is distraught at the loss of Samuel. She rejects William’s advances and blames poor Thomasin who was playing a game of peek-a-boo when Samuel vanished. Despite William’s frantic searches, the baby is nowhere to be found. They reason that a wild animal, a wolf snatched the baby. The unspoken word, “witch” hangs in the air.
As they roam through the forest checking traps, William confides in Caleb, telling him that he sold Katherine’s prized silver cup in order to buy supplies. Later, when Katherine accuses Thomasin of stealing the cup, William wimps out, failing to exonerate Thomasin.
Eleven-year old (I’m guessing) Caleb is troubled by the thought that Samuel, as an unbaptized baby will burn in hell for eternity. William shrugs, telling Caleb that it’s God’s will. Just then, the dog chases a hare. A close up of the hare’s shifty eyes suggests that this is one evil bunny and soon, the dog’s hunting days are over.
When it comes to burning in hell, poor Caleb has his own worries. He can’t help but notice the swell of his sister Thomasin’s adolescent bosom. The twins, who serve as a demented chorus, threaten to tell the parents that Thomasin is a witch. Thomasin turns the tables by saying that yes, she is a witch and if they’re not careful, she’ll cast a spell on them. This sends the little darlings screaming back to the house.
At dinner, as his father allows Catherine to accuse Thomasin of stealing the silver cup, Caleb, who knows the truth, says nothing. Determined to save the family by killing game so that they all won’t starve, Caleb sneaks out in early morning followed by Thomasin who refuses to let him go alone.
Like Hansel and Gretel, Caleb and Thomasin get lost in the woods and when Caleb chases the evil hare, the horse rears, throwing Thomasin. The siblings become separated. While Thomasin frantically searches for her brother, Caleb encounters the witch. Instead of being tempted by a candy cane, it’s the witch’s overripe cleavage that undoes poor Caleb.
Katherine is unglued when Thomasin comes home alone. Later, a naked Caleb turns up and is deathly ill. As she watches over her child, Katherine questions her faith. She describes her spiritual awakening as a young girl. In her teenage fantasies, Christ embraced her, kissing her mouth. When Caleb dies, his tortured visions turn as sensual as his mother’s. It seems that the only place where passion is allowed is within the throes of a religious revel.
As the twins natter on about Thomasin being a witch, William and Katherine put two and two together and in the Puritan handbook, that means that Thomasin might be a witch. Just when you wonder how far they are from Salem, a desperate Thomasin points out that the twins are much weirder than she is and did you notice them chatting with the goat? You can’t be too careful when it comes to witchcraft so all three children end up spending the night with the goat.
That night Katherine dreams that Caleb comes to her. He holds baby Samuel and a relieved Katherine takes the baby and rocks him while she breast feeds. The illusion is peeled away and we see a crow pecking at her breast. This farm is a nasty mean place. The next morning, as Thomasin wakes, the twins are nowhere to be found. William is chopping wood, an activity that serves as his go-to stress reliever. Determined to prove her innocence, Thomasin reasons with her dad but is interrupted when Black Phillip takes a run at William, goring him with a pair of wicked horns. She tries to help get William out of harms way but Black Phillip runs at him again, finishing him off.
Katherine rushes from the house, sees her dead husband and immediately decides that Thomasin did it. Oblivious to Thomasin’s cries, Katherine begins to strangle her daughter, who in desperation grabs a rock and kills her mother.
All is quiet as a dazed Thomasin walks into the house and sits. Her gaze is on the open door. As the day ends and it grows dark, she walks back to the pen where she had spent the night with Black Phillip. During that time, in a grotesque scene involving a cow, we saw a witch appear—or did she? What happens at the very end as the newly orphaned Thomasin enters the pen is derived from early New England folktales. The resolution is drenched in the worst fears of people living in that culture with those religious beliefs. Is this ending what really happens or the fevered imaginings of a traumatized girl rejected by her parents, alone, with no comfort in sight?
What happens at the very end is disturbing. What I found the most unsettling was witnessing the power of a belief system meant to guide its followers. When not tempered by a clear view (Thomasin’s window) of reality, it becomes a road to hell.
So why did Poltergeist, The Exorcist and Sinister grip me with the bony fingers of fear and The Witch, a very good film did not? I think it had to do with the choice of the protagonist and the nature of what was at risk. They all concerned a parent I could identify with and the loss of a child taken by an evil supernatural unknown. In each, a child is lured away beyond all the reality that grounds day-to-day existence.
This also happens to be the plot of The Witch, but I found no common ground with either parent. Though they loved their children, they loved their religion more. You could argue that in Sinister, Ethan Hawk’s character put his family in jeopardy for the sake of his career, but ultimately he does fight to save them. In Sinister, the betrayal of her parents and older brother by the dreamy youngest child, a fragile girl of six, is chilling. Sequels of these three films were unsuccessful. You knew too much and so did the characters.
There are other films with different characters and plots that had me looking over my shoulder and keeping the lights on. The Skeleton Key ‘s loss of identity by voodoo was one. Some of the old Draculas and other Hammer films can still get to the child in me. There are others, but not The Witch. This was a family and a religion where sex was evil and passion only expressed through religion. With nowhere else to go a young girl finds another path. There was no enigma. I was a young girl once. I understood.
Thank you Freud.