I have been waiting for this movie to come out since it was announced that newcomer director, Robert Egger’s film won for best director at Sundance. The movie continued to gather much hype for a Puritan era period piece about witches as trailers were released, rights were bought by distribution company A24; and the film was given the rare endorsement of The Church of Satan.
My excitement grew as I read article after article about how Eggers’ commitment to authenticity was a driving force during production. Everything from the wood used in the construction of the farm to the cloth used for the clothes had to be historically accurate of the period. This film was not as scary as I was expecting, but it didn’t disappoint either. Having watched the film late at night, rarely, do you go to bed with the unnerving feeling that you will wake up with a brown goat in your room.
As aforementioned, set in Puritan New England, The Witch could not have worked in any other setting. Given the climate of why the Puritans left England in the first place, and the idea that America was considered the New World - a place where the freedom to choose any religion you wanted was granted; it is the perfect setting for a film about hypocrisy and coming of age. Much to this day, for some, religion was more than faith; it was a way of life. Church officials, albeit corrupt, were given authoritative power to ban anyone who disagreed with their laws and creed. If one was to argue against the dogma and politics of the church, you ran the risk of banishment from the community, the loss of belonging, safety, and food. Because to disagree with the church was to disagree with God.
As The Witch opens, we are introduced to a Puritan named William, who upon disagreement with the Church in terms of faith; choses to keep his pride and move his family to a rural farm instead of staying with the church. Each member of his family represents a person at a different position in their walk of Biblical “faith.” The father, William (Ralph Wineson) is a believer that needs hard evidence in order to believe; similar to Doubting Thomas in the Gospels of the Biblical New Testament. His wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), is the devote carrier of the faith; who loves her husband but sticks to the straight and narrow of the scripture. Their young children: Caleb, Mercy, and Jonas; believe blindly because their parents believe. Lastly, their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), has now reached what George Carlin would call “the age of reason” and is starting to lose her faith as she enters womanhood.
I was curious as to why, outside of the Satanic overtones, The Church of Satan would endorse this movie. Although there are many forms of Satanism, most of the sects have similar core religious beliefs such as Satanism as being an atheistic religion that praises each individual person as a “god” with emphasis put on Satan being an archetype for pride, liberty, enlightenment, and individualism. The idea of self preservation and reaching one’s highest potential are also some of their core beliefs. These themes are represented in various ways throughout the film, mainly with the character of Thomasin as starting to lose her faith as the first step toward being “enlightened” so to speak.
Before anything even happens the film establishes that the family has their own internal problems or as the film would describe it “natural wickedness.” The husband is prideful and lies to his wife, doing things behind her back. The wife is a bully to her husband, not contributing to the farm, enveloped in materialism; spoils and does not discipline her youngest children. Caleb, the eldest son, also lies frequently, conspiring with his father, and suffers from sexual lust. Thomasin, who the film is really about, is coming into the peak of her sexuality, and can clearly see that her parents don’t always practice what they preach. The witch stealing the newborn baby at the beginning of the film is simply the catalyst for this family that is already on the verge of cracking from the brutalness of living in rural, primitive, New Hampshire.
Similar to the Blair Witch Project where the group is already suffering from issues before the Witch even strikes. With the ominous tones of music, it does seem as if a curse has been put on the family as blame and guilt are used to turn the family against each other and tear them down from the inside out. Also similar to the Blair Witch Project, the horror builds gradually. After the movie opens and the newborn child is abducted, we get a glimpse of what the witch actually looks like: an old naked faceless hag; and we are introduced to her as she is bathing in the newborn child’s split blood. But after that the film slows down and tension builds as the family slowly finds traces of the witch’s curse: dead animals, blood coming out of the utters of the farm animals, and crops suddenly rotting. Many of the witches’ terrors come in the form of psychological terrorism and hallucinations for the family that are shrouded in religious symbolism.These hallucinations change from person to person depending on what their worldly desires are. This leaves you guessing if something is really happening and is an intriguing plot device that helps move the story forward as well.
The Witch is a well acted and beautifully shot film that watches more like a scary folk tale, such as Hansel and Gretel, then it does a horror movie. The movie is not so much scary as it’s imagery haunting. Director Robert Eggers states that films like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” were both highly influential in the creation of this film. It shows, in a good way, as we see the characters in The Witch start their descent into darkness as they are driven mad by the witch. Similar to those films, I would put The Witch in the more psychological horror genre. The only thing that I didn’t like about it is you see what the witch looks like at the movie’s climax, making the film significantly less haunting.