The Witch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
The quintessential ‘good horror film’ is a diamond in the rough, hard to find, elusive, so when it comes across your path you thank the cinematic gods for it; you cherish it like the delicacy that it is. The Witch is such a film, a true blue fantastic horror film that plays with your notions of religiosity and the supernatural. It takes place during the sixteenth century in New England, a place and time in which being a witch meant you’d get either tortured or hanged, most of the time both.
On a personal note, it’s interesting that I saw The Witch days after taking a college class on the late works of William Shakespeare. On said class I wrote an essay on the supernatural elements in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this essay, I wondered if Macbeth, the power hungry king, had actually spoken to witches and seen actual ghosts and apparitions, or if it was all just part of a head trip in his guilt ridden mind. I concluded that it was a little bit of both. The Witch is similar to Macbeth in that sense; it keeps you on a loop about the witches. Are they real? Are the village folks simply bible crazy? Are they simply religious fanatics willing to take their beliefs to the extremes? Or are witches really snatching up babies for sacrificial purposes?
On The Witch we meet a family of Puritans who are psychologically traumatized by the fact that their baby has disappeared. I mean, literally, the baby was there one moment and the next it wasn’t, vanished into thin air. To make matters worse, the baby disappeared while under the care of the adopted daughter of the family, a girl whom they’ve always suspected of being a witch. But is she? Are they just looking for a scapegoat to blame? As you can see, there are always two possibilities to everything in The Witch; there’s that ambiguity to the story which I loved. You’re never really sure where to stand, which in my opinion makes the film incredibly effective.
Artistically speaking the film is a wonder to behold, the art direction, the wardrobe, the dialog; it all evokes its era to perfection. For starters, the film was mostly shot with natural lighting, this means, little to no artificial light was used during the shoot, which gives the film an amazing look. Interiors were lit with candles; exteriors were lit by the sunlight. Few directors have pulled this off effectively because it’s a difficult way to shoot a film, a lot can go wrong; you risk images ending up grainy and losing definition. Yet on The Witch, this natural lighting goes so well with the era they are depicting, an era where there was no electricity. Last time I checked, Stanley Kubrick was the last one to pull this off perfectly in Barry Lyndon (1975). So The Witch has a great spooky dark look to it. Another added bonus that adds authenticity to the film is that the dialog rings true. It doesn’t feel out of time or place; this is due to the fact that they used real life accounts of “witchcraft” to write the screenplay. This is why the dialog sounds like something straight out of Shakespeare.
They also got the behavior of these characters right. You feel the backwards mentality of these Puritan Christians. You believe they truly think evil lies within the woods. You feel the paranoia, you feel that genuine fear of God and the Devil and you feel how dangerous it all is. How once you got blamed for possibly being a witch meant you were going to go down even if you weren’t, because now doubt had been planted. The film shows how dangerous religion and hive like mentality can be. How superstition can turn its back on you and bite you in the ass in a heartbeat! I mean, back then they used witchcraft as an excuse to kill a person. Let’s say you were a rebellious woman who had an opinion, suddenly they’d blame you for witchcraft and boom, days later you’d be hanging from the ugly end of the rope. A lot of innocent women died this way. So you get that vibe with this film, that when the masses turn on you, you’re done for. For more films dealing with witchcraft watch The Crucible (1996), Witchfinder General (1968) or Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922), the last one being an exploration of the origins of witchcraft.
I have to hand it to director Robert Eggers for doing his homework and making sure every little detail is faithful to the time period, the 1600's. I mean, so many things worked in favor of this film, right down to shooting in a remote, real location where these actors could cut loose, that was genius. This isn’t some set in a green room, the exteriors were shot a real location, with real freaking trees and mountains and wind, that’s a plus for me in this day and age of computer generated everything’s. The isolated location lends itself to making everything look evil somehow, you know those films that make even nature and animals look evil somehow? Films like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (2009)? Well, that's what they achieved with The Witch, where even aninals look like they could have evil within them, more so if they are black goats. And speaking of solid performances, that’s what you get all around. Special shout out to Harvey Scrimshaw, the child actor who portrayed the character called ‘Caleb’, he really knocks it out of the park with his performance. He portrayed a child whose psyche has been damaged by religion and its fears. And while I’m at it, kudos to first time director Robert Eggers who made this fine film on his first outing. Here’s hoping this wasn’t just some fluke and he ends up making more films as good as this one.