I saw the new horror movie THE WITCH (Robert Eggers, 2015) at the Kendall with a friend the other night (why do I keep going back? Well, it’s very convenient….). The theatre staff were great and friendly, but the screen experience, not so much.
In typical small multiplex fashion, the emergency exit is right next to the screen, and its illuminated sign casts a pall of red over everything. Movie screens are made to reflect light. Put a light next to one, and surprise, it shows. In the US, fire codes also ensure you will never see a film in a properly darkened room. House lights are always partway on. This, too, is reflected on screen. What I’m getting at here is that a dark film like THE WTICH will never look as dark as it should. The blacks always looked grey-ish red in this particular theatre, which was a shame.
A friend who saw THE WITCH told me I should see it if I like goats. I was going to see it anyway, but yes, this is a good way to lure me to a film. I wasn’t disappointed – there is a great goat. Also appealing is its locale. Canada stands in, but it looks New Englady enough. Trees and a stream and whatnot. I grew up in Beverly, next door to Salem, MA, home to the Witch Trials. The story and the landscape are familiar.
Set in early Colonial New England, an immigrant (colonist, invader, call them what you will) family is kicked out of the village (presumably Plymouth) due to religious differences. They get themselves a plot of land an hour’s ride from town and try to set themselves up with a farm. New England is a tough place to try to weather alone, and their corn doesn’t exactly flourish. Winter threatens and there is an air of doom about the place. It looks chilly and beautiful. The hovel of a house and the shack for the goats are done, but the barn has only part of a roof.
There are 7 mouths to feed: mother, father, baby, a pair of youngsters, a young son on the edge of puberty, and the eldest child, a daughter; nobody else for miles. Or is there someone in the foreboding woods? They go about their lives. Suddenly, one of them vanishes. They soldier on. The children have childish fights. The boy experiences some sexual tension. The mother cannot get over the loss of her child. The father is weak. The girl worries she will be sent away.
Desperate for food, things go from bad to worse. A witch lurks. Is she real or a hysterical phantom? Their vengeful god does nothing to make them feel hopeful. Even if nothing is in the woods, will they have enough food to last the long winter?
My favorite characters, the two little kids, who are hilarious in their hijinks, appear immune to all this misery. They run around and cause mischief, go into hysterics, and talk to the goat. They say he talks back to them.
The movie is historically accurate in some ways, lifting dialogue from 17th century texts. To those versed in fairytales, there will be familiar themes. I found by far the most frightening part of the story to be the religious aspects, which is the horror behind the Salem Witch Trials and so many other tales of persecution. The family has a fervent and blind belief in a cruel and un-please-able god. The devil is real. Unbaptized babies will go to hell, no question, and even the baptized are forever sinful. It’s no surprise the family bonds crumble so easily in the face of adversity.
THE WITCH is one of those horror films where I find the supernatural aspects somewhat beside the point. There is admittedly little onscreen witchiness – always a wise move with horror, I say – keep it in the shadows and unexplained. Much scarier that way. There is the usual physical horror of any good modern horror film – visual pain and suffering. The film is beautiful. The music may be a little overdone, but it’s not bad. The story moves along (92 minutes! the perfect length!), and I quite enjoyed it.