THE WITCH (2015)

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Christopher

I went into The Witch kind of scared that my post-movie self would be way too scared to sleep for a few days. Unfortunately that did not come close to happening. I think the biggest thing against The Witch to me, was how it really wasn’t a horror movie. It had creepy moments/images but nothing ever resulted of it.

I am someone that enjoys some vagueness in films but recent horror movies, to me, are always just left completely open to interpretation. I enjoy when it seems like the director knows what the whole story is and The Witch was not that at all.

I think the name also threw me. I was waiting for the witch the whole movie and she barely showed up. And when she was there, she reminded me of Broom-Hilda with all her witch stereotypes.

I give The Witch one tine!

Elizabeth (spoilers!)

I was so ready to love The Witch. I received an email from the Alamo Drafthouse weeks ago about how The Witch was a “Drafthouse recommends” complete with an endorsement from Drafthouse CEO Tim League and told Chris that we had to see it. So we did, the day it came out. I was hoping for something close to Let The Right One In or maybe, just maybe even something along the lines of The Vanishing. I momentarily forgot my usual skepticism of horror movies and was all in and ready to go for The Witch. And it ended up being not just stupid . . . but insultingly stupid.

I’d like to take a quick moment to clear something up: for some reason, The Witch has a reputation for being a “short” movie. The Drafthouse serves food and when our server came to us before the movie started he warned us that the movie was short. Everything I’ve seen online about The Witch comments on the length being so short. But people . . . it’s fucking 93 minutes long. Per the MPAA, if a movie is 41 minutes it’s feature length. If you think of movies being about an hour and a half long, The Witch is right on the money. If you think of movies being about two hours long, it’s barely 30 minutes short of that. The reason I’m pointing this out is because the movie is not short – it just feels short. Because it has no point. Let us begin.

William (Ralph Ineson) is the head of the most Puritan of Puritan families. The film opens with a judgment by some village elders that more or less outlines that William and his family are even more Puritan than they can handle. William willingly accepts banishment for himself and on behalf of his family: wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), tween son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). They climb on the rickety family wagon and travel an unknown distance to a remote spot of land near some woods. An unknown (well, at least 9 months) amount of time later, they’re settled with a house, some crops, some animals and a new baby, Samuel.

Let’s stop here for a second. At this point, I was still totally ready and into the movie. But as soon as William spoke, I was hit with one of the most fundamental problems of the whole movie: it’s absolutely impossible to understand what the fuck anyone is saying. This is from a combination of thick, inconsistent accents and 17th century English. Here’s what I mean by inconsistent accents: William and Katherine are supposed to be from England, where Thomasin and Caleb were also born, while Mercy, Jonas, and Samuel were all born in America. William has a thick, deep Northern England accent. Katherine has a Scottish accent. Thomasin has an Irish twang and a lisp. Caleb, Mercy, and Jonas all have English accents and sound more like southern England than anything else. Now, I’m not saying Puritans had a modern American accent. But I am saying I expect a family of Puritans to at least sound like they maybe all came from the same place. And then there’s the matter of 17th century English, the worst of the offenses. I’ve read almost every work by Shakespeare (not exactly the same English, but still difficult), The Scarlet Letter, and trudged through The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s not like I’ve never heard, or understood, Puritan tongue. But The Witch was just fucking impossible. “COME HITHER, MERTHY!” Thomasin screeches in her Irish-y lisp. It sounds totally fucking ridiculous. I understood, maybe, every 15th or so word that was spoken. I waited for it to get better – at first it was just William, and I thought “Maybe it’s just because his voice is so deep.” Then it was Thomasin, and I thought “Maybe it’s just because this is a super closeup shot of her face.” Then it was the whole family, and I realized that since this will clearly be a movie about an isolated family that’s all we’re going to get and it’s not going to get better – and, of course, it didn’t.

So, if you’ve seen the trailer for The Witch you’ve probably seen Samuel get kidnapped – as Thomasin plays peekaboo with Samuel as he lays on the ground in front of her he suddenly disappears in the couple of seconds she has her hands over her eyes. We see Samuel lay on some kind of table in some kind of house with a shaky, creepy-looking arm touching him. We can assume this is the witch that’s taken Samuel, and she kills him. Don’t worry – your imagination is much worse than what actually happened. One second Samuel is there, the next he’s gone but there’s some blood in his place. So don’t go on thinking this movie has graphic baby killing. The witch is naked and takes the blood and rubs it all over her body (again, this isn’t explicitly shown), then lay down with a broom and rubs the blood over the broom. We then see her silhouette as she flies on the broom into the moonlight.

Katherine is inconsolable over Samuel’s disappearance – which they attribute to a wolf – and spends her time crying and praying over his crib. Thomasin struggles with guilt and Caleb is clearly disturbed by the idea of his unbaptized brother burning in hell. William takes Caleb hunting in the woods where Caleb tries and fails to call William out on his religion – how can William preach that those not baptized go to hell while simultaneously insisting that unbaptized baby Samuel is not? William never comes right out and says Samuel is in hell but he does tell Caleb he took a silver cup of Katherine’s and sold it for hunting supplies without Katherine knowing. They see a rabbit that William fails to kill when his gun backfires. Apparently they didn’t tell Katherine they were going hunting because she’s pretty freaked out when they return. Caleb can’t tell his mother they were hunting because that would lead to her finding out about the silver cup, so he tells her they were looking for apples.

A few times, Caleb steals glances of Thomasin’s cleavage. He’s subtle about it and never does anything more than that, which as gross as it might seem, it also doesn’t seem that crazy considering the isolation these kids are under (plus it really seems more out of curiosity than sexuality). Thomasin never notices and treats him like her little brother as always. Mercy and Jonas taunt Thomasin over losing Samuel, chasing around a black goat while Mercy accuses Thomasin of being a witch. Thomasin plays along, telling Mercy that she is a witch and ate Samuel and will eat her too – just enough to get Mercy away from her. Katherine, convinced it was Thomasin who stole the silver cup, has a loud conversation with William about sending Thomasin away. It’s almost comical how they try to hide their conversation – they live in a hand-built, non-insulated cottage. Katherine calls her children’s names as their bedroom is directly under William and Katherine’s. When they don’t answer, she concludes they’re asleep, so they argue about Thomasin extremely loudly as all the kids listen in. So William and Katherine aren’t very bright.

The morning after overhearing his parents, Caleb decides to go hunting and Thomasin insists she join him. Thomasin gets on the family’s ONE HORSE and off they go into the woods. That’s right, this family of SEVEN out in the middle of fucking nowhere has ONE HORSE. So the family dog sees the rabbit William failed to kill and runs after it, freaking that goddamn horse out enough to throw Thomasin off and knock her out. Caleb runs after the dog, who winces and yelps so you know his fate can’t be good. And Caleb does in fact find the dog’s disemboweled body. So that’s another great thing The Witch has to offer – a mangled dead dog. Caleb leaves the dog and finds a small cottage where a beautiful woman steps out. She smiles and she and Caleb walk toward each other. Because writer/director Robert Eggers has clearly seen The Shining one too many times, the woman bends down to kiss Caleb and as he kisses her back we see her old, grotesque hand reach around and grab the back of his head. Thomasin wakes up and goes home with Caleb’s whereabouts unknown, which Katherine also starts to blame her for. William comments that he can’t do shit because their ONE HORSE is now gone and as Katherine berates Thomasin for taking the silver cup and losing Samuel and Caleb, William finally chimes in and tells Katherine he took the cup, not Thomasin. Later that night Thomasin finds Caleb leaning against the farm’s fence, naked and weak.

Not knowing what to do and having NO HORSE to do anything with, the family prays around a semi-conscious Caleb. He starts having a fit, causing Mercy and Jonas to drop to the floor and have their own fits. He appears to start choking on something but won’t open his mouth so William pries his jaws open with the end of a knife, fishing out a rotten, bloody apple from his mouth. Caleb appears to have visions of Jesus and dies. The twins lay on the ground, motionless, as Katherine accuses Thomasin of being a witch while in turn Thomasin accuses the twins of being witches because they chased around that black goat and talk to it like a pet. William flips out and grabs Thomasin, Jonas, and Mercy and puts them in the goats’ stable and boards it up. They spend the night there and during the night Thomasin notices the witch in there with them, naked and feeding on the blood of one of the goats. When the witch knows she’s seen, she turns and we see her profile which is straight up the most stereotypical witch face ever, complete with a hooked nose, warts, and a cackle. The kids in the stable scream. Katherine has a vision of Caleb and Samuel and talks to Caleb as she breastfeeds Samuel – only for the viewer to discover that in reality there is no Caleb or Samuel there but there is instead a crow pecking at Katherine’s nipple. ‘Cause, you know.

The next morning William finds the stable destroyed, the goats dead, and the twins nowhere to be found. In fact, the twins never show up again and are never mentioned again. So, hope you didn’t give a shit about them because they absolutely don’t matter, apparently. Black Philip, the name of the goat the twins chased (I only caught that Black Philip was the fucking goat until around this time of the movie because of the goddamn language) repeatedly gores William, knocking him into a woodpile that falls on top of him, killing him. Thomasin goes to him and is attacked by Katherine, whom Thomasin stabs to death as Katherine tries to strangle her.

That night, Thomasin starts talking to Black Philip. She demands that he speak back to her – which he does! “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” “Wouldst thou like to see the world?” Thomasin agrees but tells Black Philip she can’t sign his book (what book? guess it doesn’t matter?) because she can’t write her own name. Black Philip tells her to take off her dress and tells her “I will guide thy hand.” Naked Thomasin follows a trotting Black Philip into the woods where she comes across a coven of naked witches chanting around a bonfire. The witches take their brooms and begin to fly. As Thomasin watches, she also begins to fly and she laughs and the movie fucking ends.

So right off the bat – nothing scary happens. They don’t even go for cheap jump scares. You don’t see the baby get kidnapped, you don’t see the baby get killed. The only time you get a full view of the witch is when she’s walking toward Caleb as a beautiful woman. You don’t see the dog get killed. You don’t see what happened to Caleb. You don’t see (or ever even find out) what happened to the twins. You don’t see the devil, which Black Philip apparently is. So, no, nothing scary.

So if nothing scary happened – what did happen? Halfway through the movie I suspected that Thomasin was not a witch but would be driven to become a witch because of her family’s crazy religion and that’s exactly what happened. So for the whole movie we know Thomasin to be a good, moral, Christian girl. She’s heartbroken by the deaths of Samuel and Caleb and feels guilty about them. She cries over her father’s dead body. She cries as she stabs her mother, the only way to get her mother to stop choking her. After she kills her mother, she sits alone and cries. But after she’s done crying – she’s ready to join the devil? The devil that, to a Puritan, is extremely real and horrifying? It’s like a switch goes off inside her. It’s . . .almost as if . . .yes, I do believe this movie is trying to tell us women are inherently evil and/or crazy. The witch-ness of Thomasin is treated like something lying dormant within her that just needed to be triggered. Her evil woman cleavage enticed Caleb who wound up dead pretty quickly. Her evil and crazy mother could never get over the deaths of Samuel or Caleb, despite William being able to easily move on. Her evil and crazy mother was eventually killed by her evil offspring. When Thomasin becomes an evil woman she has no trouble finding other evil women with whom she can be evil and serve the devil with. None of this has any real effect on any men or children – just women. The whole story ended up falling on Thomasin’s shoulders – it was “her fault” Samuel was kidnapped, it was “her fault” Caleb died, it was “her fault” the silver cup was stolen. But the reality is if you want to place blame, which this movie and the characters within it clearly do, it’s all goddamned William‘s fault, who got the whole family banished because of his crazy religion in the first place and stole the stupid cup. And yes, William is killed in a painful way. But it was really Thomasin who had to pay the price – William died but Thomasin watched her brother and father die and had to kill her mother in self-defense all before giving up everything she believes in to work for the devil. So, according to Robert Eggers: getting boobs = turning into a witch.

I wish you could say “at least it was shot beautifully,” but you really can’t. It’s not shot badly, but it’s fucking boring. The shots of the opening of the forest are the shots from a poor man’s Lars von Trier. Making everything gray doesn’t automatically make everything look scary, as the filmmakers clearly thought.

I don’t think it’s the least bit creative to have a movie with a witch as the main villain in 2016 and not expand at all on any stereotypes. What I mean by that is the witches in this movie don’t do anything new. They steal children, use flying ointment, fly on brooms, have hooked noses and warts, cackle, have naked coven bonfire chants . . . and not much more. We get no context or explanation as to why any of that is there, either. So does that mean I get to make a movie that has a Dracula complete with tuxedo, cape, fangs, and gelled hair and it’ll be called original? I guess so!

At the end of the movie, a title card brags about how some of the dialogue in The Witch was taken directly from 17th century accounts. Uh, no shit. I already suspected Eggers hid his lack of plot within the overly-complicated language, but then the end of the movie confirmed he did that plus passed it off as a positive. What the fuck good does accurate language do a film audience if there is no way to understand it?

Is Eggers aware of the Salem witch trials, I wonder? Is he aware that, although over 320 years ago, at least twenty people, mostly women, were wrongly accused of witchcraft and publicly murdered by hanging for it in this very country? Is he aware that, before the Salem witch trials, tens of thousands of people were wrongly accused of witchcraft and publicly murdered for it by being burned alive? I’m not saying that this, or any witch movie, has to be completely sensitive to the real deaths caused by hunting accused witches. But I am saying if you take a movie, drop it in 17th century New England, give the main protagonist dormant witchcraft that comes out after trauma, and argue that classic witches and witchcraft are real and not the products of religious hysteria – yeah, that’s pretty fucking insensitive. Wouldn’t we all be shocked at a movie about an American slave who discovers she really is sub-human and that slavery came about not because of racism or politics but because all of the people accusing her of being sub-human and worthless were right? I’m not saying American slavery and being falsely accused of witchcraft are the same thing. But the women murdered for being witches were certainly victims of a system they couldn’t control and positing the idea of “Hey, wouldn’t it be interesting if those women had been witches and female sexuality was evil and religious fanatics were right?” is so incredibly disrespectful that it made me feel sick after.

The Witch – oh, excuse me, I mean THE VVITCH – is a piece of shit movie that has everyone duped.

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