Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2016)

Today I saw “The Witch” by director Robert Eggers. It is apparently his debut film, and has received much acclaim since its release on February 19th of this year. It is being pushed as a Horror film, although I believe that it is more than that. Yes, there are supernatural elements to the tale, and there are moments of terror and even a little gore, but it plays out like a European art film, very moody, atmospheric, and slow moving–but in a good way. The occult imagery, when it appears, is well informed and shows a knowledge of old witchcraft tropes and themes. It portrays Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England of religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, but with a dose of M. R. James’ discreet diabolism and horror.

It is the tale of a puritan family who are exiled from their community and try to get by on their own in a tiny farm just on he outskirts of the forest. Unfortunately, this proves to be the haunted forest of the Puritans, where the devil lurks behind every turn.

Poster for "The Witch", featuring Black Phillip, the sinister goat.

Poster for “The Witch”, featuring Black Phillip, the sinister goat.

Young Thomasina, the eldest daughter of the household loses her baby brother, who is snatched up when her eyes are covered during a game of peekaboo. Her family blames her, especially her mother, who begins to blame her for everything that goes wrong on the farm.

The family fall upon further misfortunes, and begin to gang up on Thomasina, whom they suspect is a witch, as superstition, religious fervor, personal peccadilloes, and fear begin to eat away at the family fabric. During all of this, unexplained occurrences and baleful omens vex the family and add to the tension, which slowly builds to a bloody climax.

The story is told beautifully in 17th century English, which isn’t too far off from what we speak nowadays, so if you’ve seen enough Shakespeare plays, or BBC period dramas, you can get by with no problem.

It’s not for everyone, however, especially if one is looking for a full blown Horror film with modern sensibilities, but if you like your Horror to be a little more thoughtful, this might be your cup of tea. I did see a couple walk out somewhere in the middle of the film, and I suppose it wasn’t for them. As author Brian Keene is quoted to have said of the film, “The Witch is a gorgeous, thoughtful, scary horror film that 90% of the people in the theater with you will be too stupid to understand.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_%282015_film%29#Critical_response, retrieved 02/27/2016]

A bit harsh, perhaps, but in a sense, very true. This is a subtle film for people in the know, it’s not the sort of thing one watches at a drive-in movie or on a Grindhouse bill.

Apparently, it has been endorsed by the Satanic Temple, who claimed the film “…will signal the call-to-arms for a Satanic uprising against the tyrannical vestiges of bigoted superstitions, and will harken a new era of liberation and unfettered inquiry” and started a website where people can “officially register themselves into ‘The Book of Satan’.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_%282015_film%29#Religious_response]

Conversely, there are some who see it as the tale of a devout Christian family beset by trials inflicted upon them by the Enemy (a/k/a Satan). Whatever the slant, the story works either way, although I’d say the last scene probably leans more in favor of the Satanic Temple’s view of the events. Either way, it’s a great film and a good scare, if you have the wit to understand it and the patience to stick with it. I’ll definitely see it again soon, and I look forward to seeing what mister Eggers has to offer us next, after this auspicious debut.

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One Response to “Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2016)”

  1. I kept thinking of Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter”. I also referenced Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”.

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