Hey you! Yeah you! I’m raising money for Act for Change, and in exchange I’ll drunk watch Gods of Egypt and chronicle my suffering for your enjoyment. Details here.
I don’t even do the horror thing, why do I keep watching these movies? It’s all David Annandale‘s fault, basically.
I saw this trailer for The Witch some months ago, and my immediate reaction was
Because gosh that looks scary and tense and I bet there aren’t any fart jokes. (I was right. There aren’t.) But then David started retweeting all sorts of interesting pieces about the film, about it being different and comparing it to It Follows and FINE. I got curious.
I didn’t think it was as scary as It Follows. I saw the movie with Sunil because he is a god among men, and did not actually attempt to burrow into him until about twenty minutes from the end. Which as horror movies go for me is pretty tame. No jump scares, which I appreciate. But the tension in the film was just unending once it got rolling.
Plot is simple: family gets kicked out of their Puritan village because dad doesn’t agree with the elders 100% on religion. They strike out into the wilderness to make a new home for themselves. Times are hard, and bad things keep happening, and happening, and happening, and then shit really goes sideways.
Several things were striking about this film. First off, despite the reason for the family being out by the creepy woods being religious differences, the patriarch of the family isn’t the villain; he’s religiously not any wackier than the rest of the Puritans at the time, as far as I could tell. The family is one of generally good people who make little mistakes such as lying to each other in an effort to avoid conflict, that balloon into terrible familial conflict later.
Much has been made about the historical accuracy depicted. As a non-expert, I can’t confirm or deny this, but it certainly feels like the work’s been put in to make this feel like we’re just following a 17th century Puritan family around. The language and accents took me about 10 minutes to get used to, because it was very different from modern American English. That was actually pretty cool.
The horror is played very close to the chest here, in a way I could appreciate. While it’s very clear what happened to the missing baby, much of the rest is left ambiguous. Is the rabbit we keep seeing actually a manifestation of evil, and we’re afraid because we’re seeing it through the eyes of a family that’s isolated and afraid? Nothing blatantly supernatural starts happening until very close to the end.
The film rests almost entirely on the backs of six actors, who comprise the family that’s heading for a terrible end. Everyone did excellent work, but Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the oldest daughter Thomasin, was particularly excellent.
I don’t tend to be a fan of witch-as-monster stories; they just never sits right with me, considering the history of innocent people getting executed for witchcraft in the early modern period. In the light of day, I can’t say I feel any better about it, though in the moment I was too busy squirming in my seat to think about it over much.
A little spoiler here for the end.
The most horrifying thing about the movie is the realization at the end that this has all happened, effectively, to recruit Thomasin into being a witch. I joked with Sunil that if Palpatine had done half as good a job as Black Philip, I would have actually bought Anakin switching to the dark side.
Thomasin’s already in a position where she’s got a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, and then when her little brother disappears, she starts getting blamed for everything else because she’s been touched by suspicion. She claims to be a witch to scare the bratty twins into listening to her, which backfires spectacularly later. Her parents talk about sending her away, due to the bad harvest, which isn’t something she wants. Then at the end, after watching her siblings get ripped apart and her father get killed by a goat even as he blames her for their deaths, her mother tries to strangle her and she is forced to act in self defense. She has nothing left at that point, no family, no prospect of survival, and she was already powerless.
That’s the truly chilling thing about the movie. Thomasin is showed at the beginning to be trying to be a good person to the standards of her culture. She prays (though doctrinally, it’s established that they don’t believe there is any way of knowing if one is Heaven or Hell-bound). She obeys her parents. She works hard. And then by the end, she has literally nothing left and nowhere else to go. “My entire family is dead but I swear I had nothing to do with it, the evil goat did it” is clearly not something that’s going to fly with the village elders. She joins the power that has manipulated her and everyone around her, which has destroyed her life by hammering on the existing faultlines until they broke utterly. At its heart, The Witch is about a good person transforming, propelled by outside pressure, into the monster they most fear.