If our collective memory of the New England Witch Scare seems too swept up in moralizing against, well, groupthink moralizing, then here is a sort of anti-Crucible. Our family leaves the primordial American community at the start of The Witch. Not that the 6-person family fails to provide each character with multiple shadows, doubles, f(r)iends, enemies, and lovers. The decision to focus on the family is one among many that nestles our film in the comfortable couch of 70s art horror. Complaints about that cushioned hub follow below. But to begin, I would like to commend the conviction that Eggers and Co. solicit from their viewers. There is no doubting that our movie monster is real. And well-researched! Thou know’st it, thou is nudg’d slightly toward that position in the bizarre piece of press kit material that slivers in just before the ending credits roll.
Did that help you? I’m sure Robert Eggers, our first time director, had the approval of his Grad School adviser. I don’t know if I should read the performance of assiduous research as a sign of the indisputable singularity of the project when such a reading might prevent it from saying anything about our times (unless we’re part of the Church of Satan). Many excellent horror films do occur in a sort of vacuum. As previously stated, our heroes have left a New England township for unspecified reasons to forge their own life. The immediate work of survival is made all the more difficult by a sudden disappearance, which leads our heroes into the woods. Parallel problems follow, and the material desperation is not sublimated by, but is always an additional problem to, the terrifying figures at the edge of their puritanical mission.
You can tell that much of the film’s budget was directed toward a very handsome, which is to say pathetic and hideous, array of costumes, props, and wooden shacks. I’m happy about this. I’m happy that the last year of film making has been a year in which I could talk about the production design of a film for a good hour before even approaching its other merits. The frames are rife with beautiful, if unshowy, details. The titular character is designed with a great amount of subtlety (or, a small amount of money), all Shadow and Flesh. We’re in a post-Baroque age of costume design, here, where the realism of the costume matters more than anything, where people are no longer showing off modern flourishes to archaic clothing but purposefully wearing down their garments. One of my favorite moments of costume design comes at the end of the movie, when a certain character’s costume is all the more chilling in not being fully revealed. To not only invest in detail, but to resist the temptation to turn one’s film into a showroom for the admirable, difficult work of production design - that takes a level of restraint many directors don’t have by their third film, much less the first.
The Witch matches this perfectly simulated production design by lifting its dialogue directly from accounts of early colonial New England. I’m surprised by how effective this trick is. Surely, this is the sign of good direction. The actors delightfully chew about 60 percent of their “thous” and “thees’ salads, partially because the film is so interested in moving their bodies about. It seems like the film wants to go all-out in its ambitious blocking, to throw around its characters in a delirium. What ends up happening is a lot of effort pushed to the periphery of just a few engaging set pieces. My favorite of these celebrates the early, close bond between the black-eyed young twins of the family and their male goat, Black Philip. How often do you see human-goat interaction in a film?
The more boring stuff almost entirely revolves around the echo chamber of tone that is The Witch’s portrait of its lead patriarch and matriarch. Here is where I finally leave a discussion of conceptual and technical details in order to describe how it actually feels to watch this movie. Since the film knows it isn’t a mainstream horror film, it opts for communicating its creepiness through the score’s set of ominous drones, of slow tracking shots that are all based upon the faith that we will equate barely illuminated wide shots of nature with dread. And such Kubrick fan service reaches its peak with a scene that so directly apes the Room 237 sequence of The Shining, I don’t see it as anything but an escape route so common American art house film making these days: if you can’t think of anything, just quote Kubrick. There’s a lot of anxiety hiding underneath the drones, a weird desire to make the aforementioned Shining and Barry Lyndon at the exact same time. And you start to notice how lacking this desire is in the non-development of the patriarch and matriarch characters, their complete inability to actually contribute to the film. Kubrick conjured what we all know now was genuine, end-of-your-life, horror in the faces of his actors. That sort of makes the whole austere shtick more excusable, in my eyes. The two oldest actors have a harder time believing themselves to be where they are. Anyway, I found the Kubrick allusions in Insidious: Chapter 3 much more entertaining.
In lieu of centralizing the father-mother duo, then, Eggers lays down most of the dramatic weight upon the just-pubescent brother-sister duo. This puts the central psychic conflict in a very singular (and, for what it’s worth, Hegelian) place; on the one hand, you have the formative ambiguity of the incest taboo, and, on the other, the tension of two members faced with the double-bind of familial loyalty and the need to move themselves beyond this family. It’s a long chain of substitutions; first, the family leaving the community for more puritanical goals, then, the adolescent’s (most explicitly the daughter’s) need to continue the puritanical legacy by selling themselves off to a new familial formation. The post-Crucible lever is effective; the whole historicist fabulation of witchery becomes intrinsic to the family’s submission of the woman. It’s hard to blame Anya Taylor Joy, who plays the impossibly virginal daughter, for being upstaged by Caleb Scrimshaw (what a fitting name!), who plays the brother and whose self-exorcism is easily the most ably acted scene in the entire film.
For all its confusion about actually getting to where it wants to be, The Witch is quickly memorable, meme-able, effective, and another refreshing sign of this horror revival. I hope we can get to a point where the genre doesn’t need to legitimize itself through allusions to the Great Masters, or through a forced sense of self-worth. If the former is Egger’s biggest weakness, the latter is, to my great chagrin, on display in the anti-horror film Goodnight Mommy. In times of scarcity, the promise of something as simple as butter is enough. I’m willing to write off the problems of The Witch as “essential fatty oils.”