It seems that since 2014’s surprise sensation The Babadook, a switch somewhere in the collective unconscious was flipped and it is finally okay for the world to start taking the horror genre seriously. Riding the wave of buzz generated by last year’s psychosexual indie darling, It Follows, a trailer for The Witch began making the rounds on social media. Unlike It Follows, however, The Witch appeared to be a highly polished period piece, rooting itself in the inseparable mix of superstition and religions fervor that marked one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history – Early 17th century New England and the intellectual blight that came to be known as the Witch Trials.
Right up front The Witch claims itself to be a folktale, and the proceeding 93 minutes string together the type of story one could imagine hearing huddled in the darkness with only a campfire to ward off the evils that lurk in the night. We are introduced to a family as they are exiled from their small town due to the religious trespasses of their father who accepts the punishment with gladness as he feels the town and he have deviated on their respective paths toward salvation. The dialogue is strongly accented sounding like Shakespearean English spoken through a Transatlantic filter. It took me a while to get used to it and at times I found myself struggling to grasp what was being said. It turns out most of the dialogue was cribbed directly from transcripts recorded during the time in which the movie takes place.
We see the family pack all their belongings into a lopsided wagon and pull away from the town and the audience as they head towards the woods. The woods will come to be a character itself. It’s where The Witch’s protagonist, Thomasin, is playing with her infant brother when the building action of the film begins and in the brief instant she covers her eyes during a game of Peek-A-Boo, the child vanishes with nothing but some shaking leaves on the edge of the woods to reveal his fate.
In perhaps the most horrifying scene of the movie, the child’s fate is revealed to us as we see the titular creature for the first time, but it’s after this point that anyone who had entered the theater looking for gasp inducing thrills might find themselves disappointed with The Witch.
If taken at surface level The Witch doesn’t actually do much as a horror film. One can be impressed by the inspired acting by the entire ensemble and the jaw dropping intricacy of the costume and setting especially when the budget of the movie is taken into consideration (it only cost $1M, a pittance by today’s standards), but if scares per minute is the rubric with which you decide to grade this movie, it will likely fail by any standard.
No, the true horror of the film lies just beneath the surface and is deeply tied to the history its based on.
Throughout history, witchcraft and it’s related mythology has been used to institute a culturally guided bias towards women, especially those that eschewed the restrictive mores imposed upon them with regards to their sexuality. From the analogous relation between witches’ brooms and masturbatory devices to the use of witchcraft as an excuse to justify adulterous men caught in the act. Societies, especially those heavily rooted in religion have turned to witchcraft to ostracize and persecute non-conformist women. Multiple times in the film, Thomasin is focused upon as an object of sexual desire, mainly through the eyes of her brother, and, as we learn from a voyeuristic eavesdropping of a conversation between Thomasin’s parents she’s reached her sexual maturity and can now be offered away like chattel to a more prosperous family who can help these destitute farmers in their time of need.
As the film progresses we see Thomasin driven further and further away from the safety and sanctity of her, culminating when she comes to blows with her devoutly pious mother.
When removed from the confines of her deeply restrictive upbringing Thomasin’s decision at the end seems the only likely option.
The Witch is a movie that deserves its hype, but possibly not for the reasons it’s receiving it. There is a ton of conversation that can happen around both the heavily metaphor laden plot as well as the controversial history that it roots itself in, and its conversation that should happen as even though the fear of witches no longer pervades our culture, the motives behind it still darken much of the personal and political climes in present day.
See it! Come for the set/costume design and historical accuracy, stay for the sociopolitical commentary.