Historical Research and a Creepy Edge

I’ve been looking forward to The Witch, since the moment it premiered at Sundance in 2015.  That’s when the buzz began in horror movie circles for this film.  As the date of the wide-theatrical release grew closer, the anticipation only increased.  This feeling grew at an exponential rate this week because the internet seemed to begin losing its mind about this movie, for instance Stephen King’s tweet that it “scared the hell out of [him]” and was “visceral.” I was all the more eager to see it–to the point where I worked a full-day, taught an hour-and-a-half class, and then went to see it. (Do I get horror fan dedication points for this?) [This post shall remain as spoiler-free as possible, but as always, readers beware.]

Set in 1603 American colonies, the film follows a family’s self-imposed exile to the untamed wilds outside of their settlement due to a disagreement between the family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson),  and the plantation’s religious elders/church doctrine.  As the family tries to establish themselves alone, they are beset with misfortune, even though their devotion to their faith is clear and present throughout the film.

First, the cast of this film was absolutely fantastic.  Ineson’s portrayal of William exuded a morass of failure, doubt, and pride that mirrored the tone of the film.  Kate Dickie’s Katherine was flawless in her devoutness, especially as she and the film descend a bit into madness. Anna Taylor-Joy as Thomasin walked the line throughout the film of innocence and temptation, showing the audience just how dangerous that line is particularly in an esoteric life devoid of joy and playfulness.  Harvey Scrimshaw was phenomenal as Caleb, the oldest of son and younger brother to Thomasin, and his interaction with Anna Taylor-Joy showed depth and compassion.  He also had one of the most difficult scenes to act in the film, in my opinion, and did so with a compelling screen presence.  Also the two little ones, playing twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), were great and played annoying younger siblings quite well.

What was most impressive was the utterly mind-blowing attention to detail and historical research so prominently displayed in the film.  It was clearly heavily embedded in a desire to present a narrative that was based in historical documents and through that research demonstrate how frightening our history truly is even on its surface.  As an audience member, I tend to eschew simple distillations of the image of witch as shortcut for evil or Satan worshipper.  This stereotype and trope typically raises my ire and turns me off.  Here, though, writer and director Robert Eggers establishes not the normal witch = evil reductive plot.  Instead, this film demonstrates the fear that the idea of witchcraft evoked in the cultural imagination of the historical period in which it is set, showing the idea of the witch as a product of religious zeal and isolation.  Whether real phenomenon or product of cultural imagination (or economic opportunists), the [Satanic] witch was both feared and reviled as harbingers of destruction.

Eggers’s screenplay is subtle in its creepiness. My one issue was that I just didn’t find it scary…not at all.  Eggers creates tension and plot climaxes throughout the film, and Mark Korven’s music built that tension in spectacular and creepy ways, particularly with his discordant sounds. Even Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography continually underscores the ominous feel of this film.  It just did not frighten me at all, so sadly I must disagree with Stephen King on that one. The film is immensely watchable though, and I do recommend it.  Check out the trailer on YouTube and check out the film in theatres.

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