The Witch (2016)

Once in a while, a horror film comes along that transcends both the genre and audience expectations to become not just a classic fright flick, but a classic in its' own right. The Shining. Rosemary's Baby. The Exorcist. They're movies that aren't just frightening, but thoughtful, intelligent, and well executed; they're movies that have been talked about for years after their production, and which audiences will continue to talk about for years to come.

The Witch is not one of those movies.

Make no mistake: The Witch is a well-made film. Also, make no mistake that, regardless of its quality, enough zeitgeist has been artificially engineered around the movie that it's going to become, if only briefly, a cultural touchstone. At least in 2016, it will be celebrated for a variety of attributes assigned to the movie, out of either sheer dishonesty or sheer ignorance. Yet the Witch is not a film that will define an era of quality horror filmmaking; it does not transcend genres, does not ask deep questions, does not take audiences on a phantasmagoric journey into the dark side. It is a decent horror film-- but that's all.

It's 1630s New England, and, as is the style of the day, William (Ralph Ineson) has broken away from his church. The reason isn't terribly important: There are theological differences profound enough that William fears for the safety of his soul, along with the souls of his family: wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughters Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), and sons Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and Samuel (a newborn infant). Defying the Protestant perspective of the wilderness as a place of great evil, the family treks out into the woods intent on living off of the land and establishing a new community dedicated to faith in the Lord. Virtually from the outset, though, the quest seems doomed: No sooner have the family set up their new homestead than young Samuel vanishes, apparently snatched away by wolves. Katherine goes into despondency, and William is forced to sell her heirloom silver chalice in order to pay for hunting gear when their crops suffer. As the family slowly begins to turn on one another, it begins to become apparent that their misfortunes are more external than internal, wrought upon them by a demonic crone (played as an old woman by Bathsheba Garnett, a young woman by Sarah Stephens) who poses far more risk to their souls than some minor theological quibbling.

The Witch is an unusually intelligent movie in that it doesn't attempt to speak down to its audience on any level. The script, in particular, is a masterwork, composed entirely in period-appropriate dialogue. A post-script even informs the viewer that sizable portions of the script were copied verbatim from historical records regarding witchcraft, giving the film an even more authentic flavor than if screenwriter/director Robert Eggers had simply attempted to mimic the speech patterns and vernacular of Puritan New England. It was a daring choice for a horror film, especially in an era when filmgoers are quick to hit up the comments section on IMDB complaining about foreign films that are subtitled rather than overdubbed. It's sometimes difficult to decipher exactly what characters are saying, with the film instead forcing the viewer to rely on action and context to understand what's being conveyed (indeed, anyone who views The Witch in theaters will probably greatly enjoy a second viewing on DVD with subtitles). The effect is to fully immerse the viewer in the film's events, transporting them back in time nearly four-hundred years to a very familiar yet completely foreign place.

Another daring choice on Eggers' part, and another way in which it respects the intelligence of its' audience, is its' refusal to cast judgment on its' characters faith. Once a cornerstone of the genre (especially in the demon possession subgenre), Christianity has become a joke in horror films over the past twenty-some years, populated by atheist priests and insidious evangelicals even more dangerous than the bogeymen they ostensibly oppose. Whereas Margaret White was once the exception in horror's depictions of Christianity, the trope has since become the norm. Not so for The Witch. It's populated not only by true believers, but completely drawn ones. While the film is ready to depict the temptations and torments they face, it never depicts their beliefs or spiritual struggles as a joke, a weakness, or as a target for derision from the audience. Whether the viewer wants to bring their own prejudices into the film is left up to him or her; there's nothing textual to suggest that these are anything but real, basically decent human beings, beset by the same flaws and weaknesses that plague anyone regardless of belief system. Another writer would have been tempted to depict William's desperate attempts to salvage the family-- hocking his wife's stuff behind her back; taking the kids off on secret, dangerous hunting trips-- as Christian hypocrisy. Rather, Eggers depicts William's missteps not as those of a holier-than-thou Bible thumper (indeed, William is pretty laid back, as far as Puritans go), but a troubled human being trying to do his best. He easily could have been motivated to abandon his town for any number of secular, political reasons, and the morally questionable choices he makes in the wilderness could easily have been made by any Jew, atheist, or Pagan.

Beyond the script's stylistic choices is a simple but effective story, told in a simple yet effective way. Virtually the entire film is set around the family's small, makeshift plantation in the woods, with some truly fantastic cinematography conveying the desolation of both a New England winter and the family's spiritual situation. Sadly, the sets and setting are never really put to full effect: More could have been done to enhance the sense of wide-open isolation (there are several missed opportunities for a truly stifling claustrophobic effect, which occurs only once in the film, during a rather benign late-night dinner). Similarly, more could have been done with the film's numerous dropped plot threads, each of which promises a new, harrowing situation for the family before either being forgotten or abruptly resolved. The film puts a heavy focus to Caleb's burgeoning sexuality, only for that to be done away with in a single scene that makes everything that came before it seem pointless. One scene intimates that two of the children have become possessed, but that's also dropped without the real spookiness of the child actors every being fully exploited. The movie toys with the cultural misogyny of accusing willful, intelligent women of corrupting society, but William turns out to be too respectful of his daughter for that to get explored. Beyond its' fantastic characterization and grand visuals, The Witch is, ultimately, a series of false stops and starts, culminating in an infernis ex machina climax that doesn't really follow organically from anything that's come before it, unless you count an audience desire to linger on a finely sculpted derriere for several minutes. Therein lies the greatest fault of The Witch: A chronic failure to deliver on what its' script promises. (A note must also be made here about the film's trailer, which might be the most effective of the 2015-2016 Winter horror season. In being absolutely terrifying, and promising a soul-harrowing experience, it ends up being scarier than the actual movie by far, largely due to its' contextless montage of all the movie's good scares. Essentially, if you've seen the trailer, you've seen The Witch, including a particularly disturbing scene that comes far too early in the actual film for it to carry the necessary impact).

Which brings us to how people are going to respond to The Witch. Leading up to the film's release, it's gotten a good deal of hype from The Satanic Temple, the Church of Satan, and numerous self-proclaimed-yet-unaffiliated-Satanists and atheists proclaiming this to be the Satanic movie of the new millennium. To hear them speak, this movie is their Passion. It's understandable in a way: A sizable portion of today's LaVeyan Satanists came of age during a presidential administration that contextualized a global conflict as a Holy War, the gay marriage battle, and politicians who've insisted on making military decisions based upon their understanding of end-times scripture. To them, LaVeyan Satanism is the quickest, easiest way to definitively separate oneself from mainstream America and the political right. It's the new counterculture, punk for the Millennial generation. Yet other than some medium-profile legal battles, there's been no cultural touchstone for them, no CBGB or Sex Pistols. They're in want of a person, place, or piece of pop culture to act as their Woodstock. The Witch, however, shouldn't be it. It takes a shallow and naive reading to find any of the philosophical touchstones that're supposed to be present. Modern Satanism is supposed to be about individual liberty, intellectual pursuit, and freedom from superstition; and while a character does apparently achieve transcendence through surrender to The Witch, accepting that this is a positive event also means accepting an endorsement of pederasty, incest, and infanticide. Rather than a misunderstood representation of repressed desire, The Witch is pretty much everything the Puritans think she is. Her victory isn't one of reason over superstition and religious repression: It's one of evil over good.

When I was in college, one of my close friends was the president of the LGBT alliance. We were in the student honors program together and, having similar interests, we usually ended up rooming together during conferences. On one trip, we were channel surfing in the room when we came across Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. My friend audibly sighed and rolled his eyes. When I asked him why, he explained his frustration: Several of his gay friends all vocally endorsed the show, despite many of them not really personally enjoying it. They saw it as sort of homosexual minstrelsy. In ostensibly promoting gay acceptance it was really just enforcing stereotypes, depicting gays as fashionable and cultured and straights as uncivilized and slovenly. Yet, my friend said, gays he knew felt compelled to support the show because it was one of the only programs that even made an attempt to show gays in a positive light. It was that or nothing.

That's the situation of The Witch-- or at least those who support it as an evangelical tool for a new age of Satanic Reason. Yes, the Christians in it are flawed and weak. Yes, the Witch is powerful and seductive. Any deeper reading reveals the same dynamic between dark and light that's been depicted in countless other horror films. Yet the desire of LaVeyan Satanists-- and hipsters looking to buck the norm-- to have something as a rallying cry is letting them conveniently ignore the text in favor of their own unsupported interpretation. It's happened before-- countless times with Christianity, matter of fact. So I hold no illusions that The Witch won't be a celebrated film. The frustration of that is, if it's going to be celebrated, it ought to be for the right reasons.

Preston Fassel