Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: The Witch (2015)

The Witch is an excellent horror movie. By saying this, I indicate my disagreement with Lesley Coffin's claim that The Witch is not really a horror film but rather "a drama that happens to have horror [elements] (like Macbeth)." I sympathize with Coffin's idea that the promotion and marketing of a movie like The Witch can impact how viewers receive it. But Jason Coffman's article on horror film fandom tackles that "expectations" issue with greater nuance, and like Coffman, I maintain a broader definition of what constitutes horror than Coffin does.

I don't expect The Witch to feature, say, overtly amusing characters, fast cutting, jittery camera work, jump-scares, or less overt commitment to its supernatural themes. Those are not necessarily deal-making or -breaking elements of horror movies for me.* If anything, I slightly prefer the kind of deliberate, creeping terror and intentional, unnerving ambiguity "restrained" horror films like The Witch so artfully maintain.**

Foundationally, I'm going with Noel Carroll's idea from The Philosophy of Horror:
works of horror are designed to elicit a certain kind of affect. Members of the horror genre will be identified as narratives and/or images (in the case of fine art, film, etc.) predicated on raising the affect of horror in audiences.***
Since The Witch primarily intends to scare and disturb its viewer, rather than to have us feel for the onscreen characters' suffering and weep for them, it is a horror film, not a melodrama.

To offer a comparative example, The Witch is more clearly and plainly a horror film than Crimson PeakCrimson Peak is a legitimate specimen of what Coffin describes, a Gothic melodrama that integrates horrific scenes and confronts the supernatural (presumed or actual) yet is more fundamentally Romantic than horrific. Conversely, The Witch and The Babadook are more similar to each other in overall tone (horrific and scary with a wee bit of family melodrama thrown in) if not in delivery (The Witch is grimmer and slightly gorier, The Babadook more conventionally edited, including some jump-scares).

However, if The Witch is firmly on the horror side of the generic fence, it also resembles the melodramatic Crimson Peak in some ways: it unfolds at an even pace, favors a still or slow-tracking camera, generally eschews jump-scares, and delivers its horror creepingly and intelligently. The Witch grapples with some real issues -- relations between the sexes, incest taboos, the limits of faith, the dangers of "civilizing" the wilderness -- while never losing sight of its main goal, to creep us out and entertain us.

Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a riveting performance as Thomasin, 
the young protagonist of The Witch.

In terms of its overall narrative and themes, The Witch is fairly similar to Lars von Trier's amazing Antichrist (2009) and to Rob Zombie's less-than-amazing The Lords of Salem (2012). I don't want to give too much away here but both The Witch and Antichrist use non-human animals and animal imagery to convey much of their horror. Both films suggest that the line between the human and the animal is permeable, possibly even nonexistent. In The Witch, a rabbit, a goat, and a raven all play pivotal roles in representing what's happening to Thomasin's family, thus there is an inherent ambiguity at play since human viewers may project any number of things onto the images of these animals.

Speaking of viewer takeaways, A.A. Dowd offers an insightful yet troubling reading of The Witch as a film so committed to period realism that it
situates itself very purposefully in an actual time and place; it doesn’t require some huge mental leap to connect its fictional terrors to the very real ones inflicted upon a group of innocents in the same geographic region about six decades later. Is The Witch a vivid portrait of theological paranoia, showing a small community torn apart by its irrational suspicions? Or is it a cautionary tale about a family of Christians who leave the church, only to discover that such unfounded fears actually aren’t unfounded? [Director Robert] Eggers seems to want it to be both, but the result is a horror movie that comes dangerously close to showing sympathy for the real devils, the kind that burned witches instead of instructing them.
I find Dowd's interpretation plausible and concede that many viewers might take The Witch this way. Yet I feel that the film is basically woman-positive and pretty clearly wants us to take the side of witchdom. Anything scary or horrific that is attached to women's bodies, behavior, or images in The Witch is recuperated, I think, by the way the film shows us these events almost entirely from Thomasin's point of view. Thomasin may place a bit too much trust in her hapless father, and he in her, but the film finally wants us to sympathize with Thomasin and her ordeal. It is made clear early in the movie that it is the women, not the men, who are the key players in this outcast family. As in so many of the best horror films, The Witch ultimately exposes patriarchy as hollow and foolish. The real power, the ability to create and to destroy, lies on the other side of the sexual divide.

If you enjoy well-made horror movies like The Babadook or It Follows or even The Conjuring, you should also enjoy what The Witch has to offer. If, on the other hand, you prefer your horror to feel more like the Paranormal Activity franchise or the 2005 Paris Hilton remake of House of Wax, then maybe The Witch isn't for you. I know that for me, The Witch joins The Babadook, It Follows, and Gothic melodrama Crimson Peak as one of my favorite recent horror movies. As Coffman concludes,
There is an audience for thoughtful, intelligent genre films, and it is up to us to make it known that we are here and that we are looking for films that expand the definitions and push the boundaries of genre cinema.
Let's do it! Go see The Witch -- in theaters if possible -- for on top of everything else, the costumes and visuals kick ass!

UPDATE 2/29/2016 (later in the day): I avoided SPOILERS in the main body of my review but now I want to add a few SPOILER-y remarks about The Witch's ending. Unlike Lesley Coffin, I do NOT take the film's early revelation of an actual witch in the woods (we see a nude old woman doing stuff with what we assume to be baby's blood) to rule out the possibility that everything in the movie occurs solely in the (Puritanical) minds of Thomasin's family members. That is, even stuff that APPEARS to be objectively "real" or otherwise inexplicable in The Witch may not be. As I wrote to a couple friends after we saw the movie together:
Could it be that much of what we see is subjective / imagined but that the power of these Puritan weirdos' faith / denial of reality is so great that it looks to the viewer like there is an objectively real supernatural presence in the woods? That is, we see everything through the eyes of a fervently devoted Puritan family, so . . .
Along similar lines, once you've seen the film and are mulling over its heady, ambiguous ending, consider this guy's interpretation. Or, as my friend succinctly puts it, "I do kinda like the idea that [Thomasin] was driven towards witchdom by her puritanical parents but didn't necessarily become one. Once she killed her mom she may have dreamed/fantasized about becoming one because she thought of herself as an abomination." Well said old bean!

UPDATE 3/3/2016: Another friend with whom I saw the film sent me a link to this article, which supports the idea that The Witch "is a great exploration of the dark, chaotic, troubled psychology of English colonists at the very beginning of the empire’s colonial experiment in North America."

UPDATE 3/13/2016: Check out Mark Kermode's awesome review of The Witch, in which he agrees with me that "it is still possible (and indeed preferable) to read The Witch as a story whose demons lurk largely within the mind." Kermode concludes that "in an age of cattle-prod scares, The Witch plants its pitchfork proudly in the more unsettling landscape of evocative, intelligent modern horror."

* As Coffman writes: "Like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, The Witch takes the genre back to primal, lizard-brain territory: fear of the dark, fear of nature, fear of the unknown, and most of all fear of other people — even the ones you think you know. How anyone could come away from The Witch and deny that it is a horror film defies reasonable explanation."
** "Restrained" horror is outlined by Daniel Martin on pp. 36-40 of his article "Japan's Blair Witch" in Cinema Journal 48.3 (Spring 2009). I also discuss it in my Crimson Peak review.
*** Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990) p. 15.


  1. I concur with the vast majority of what's written here but not with the presumed universality of witchdom being sympathetically portrayed. Though the film was certainly antipatriarchal, it was by no means reclaiming power for women. The statement of the film to me was far more hollow and intentionally so. Nowhere does power live in this family; they are all utterly in the grip of a malicious fate. We see them collide in blind ignorance against one another, with simple angry fear their only defense against a mad chaos not unlike Antichrists's. The witch coven, imagined or otherwise, is seen in desperate decayed states, they are lifted and led and abused by a new, more perfectly manipulative Prince. The feminist statement her is not that witchdom was an escape the female community being regularly subjudagated by their male familiars, but that there was no escape. From the God of my abusive asshole dad to the God of pleasures and murder, with only grinning Death waiting.

    1. Good god why don't I proofread before posting?

  2. Very well said though. Another close friend of mine agrees with your view of this matter too, and I find the interpretation persuasive. Thanks for sharing.