Horror, as a genre, is one that isn’t afraid of pushing buttons, and challenging the norms. Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a thread of female empowerment going through horror films, and it’s been refreshing to see. This isn’t talking about the “final girl” concept. No, this is talking about women who are able to be the agent of what is happening around them, and come out stronger at the end because of it. Look at films like It Follows, The Babadook, and, yes, Ex Machina. All of these films feature women that, while they might not necessarily be the root cause of the events of the story, they are able to, through their own strength, and ingenuity, change the rules of the game around them. It Follows features Jay taking control of her own sexuality, and the choices and consequences of doing so, without reservation. The Babadook looks at depression, and how the damage that it can cause, but again, it is predominantly Amelia who is the agent of change for her family. With regards to Ex Machina, Ava outwits both of the men who believe they are testing her, and holds her entire fate squarely in her robotic hands. And that’s a small list.
This isn’t to say that horror in general has glowing views of women. Far from it. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to deny that there is some rampant misogyny running through the genre, but the fact that there is some strong women stepping forward in horror, and in roles that are more than simply a “final girl” role, is a great thing. It shows that the world is turning, and that alone is a pretty good feeling, even when it comes with a certain level of dread.
Of course, when trying to bring about change, you run a risk of alienating people. This is something that has an even higher risk within horror, due to the incredibly subjective relationship that the viewer has with the subject matter. One person’s terrifying could very easily be another person’s laughable. Even things that are considered to be universal fears have plenty of people who don’t find them disturbing in the slightest. That subjectivity leads to people having vastly different experiences, and things that some people love, others will outright hate.
That brings me around to the movie that I want to talk about, and one that is out in theaters right now. I am, of course, talking about The Witch, a film that I actually described as being “relentlessly uncomfortable”. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience; I definitely did (at least, I did most of the way through the film). But the film certainly hit me with just an overall feeling of discomfort from the very start, and that discomfort, while wondering what was coming next, kept me involved. With that said, let’s look at The Witch.
The Witch bills itself as “A New England Folktale”, and that descriptor couldn’t be more apt. Taking place in the 1600s, and following a Puritan family who has been exiled from their village, the film doesn’t deal with overarching moral dilemmas. Instead, it reverts back to the simpler, archetypal stories of yesteryear. What causes all of the trouble for William and his family? In the basic folktale style, it is simply leaving the safety of their people. Striking out on their own. Entering the woods. Simple, primal fears, and ones that definitely would have resonated with the time frame the film was set in.
But is it really just that simple? Of course not. Layered over the top of the basic fears is an admonition of excessive pride, a tale of a mother feeling threatened by her daughter blossoming, and a family who have become so wrapped up in their beliefs that they aren’t seeing the reality around them. Setting the film in Puritan times helps ground it, and, while it may take some viewers a little time to completely wrap their heads around the (remarkably authentic) language and dialect, the performances all around by the cast, laying bare who these people are, carry an impact. The pacing is deliberate, and, as I mentioned above, personally it was unrelenting in how uncomfortable the film was. Each moment built on the last, not necessarily in intensity, but with very few opportunity given to pull back on the tension. I have seen some people describe the film as being “boring”, but I think a lot of that really is tied into how quickly and easily you get sucked in by the tension-building, and how uncomfortable the moments make you.
Very quickly, the film presents you with the titular witch, after the family baby, Samuel, is abducted while in the immediate care of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Needless to say, that doesn’t end well, and leads directly to one of the few scenes that would fit well into many other horror films, as well. From that point on, the film doesn’t really let up. We’re met with the sounds of Katherine (the mother, in a strong portrayal by Kate Dickie) praying frantically, only to learn that this has been going on practically unabated for days. William (Ralph Ineson) proceeds to, through his own hubris, keep making what he believes are the correct choices to save his failing farm, while also soothing his family, but the only thing he is good at seems to be chopping wood. It is his pride that set his family down the path that they’re presently on, and his pride keeps them from being able to see the writing ont he wall until it is too late. Throw into that mix the leering gaze of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the plot to remove Thomasin from the family home, and the refusal to believe their reality, and you’ve got a film that is either a make-it or break-it concept.
I mentioned above how horror has been starting to present more tales that revolve around female empowerment, and I truly believe that The Witch is a film that fits into that category. William is a man who is entirely ruled by his wife, and his fear of what she would think of him. Over the course of the film, we see him shying away from things that would anger her, or at least the admission thereof. In fact, when given the chance, he is more than willing to deflect blame towards Thomasin, who is just entering womanhood, and is clearly a threat in the eyes of Katherine. However, while Katherine is the silent power in the household, it is Thomasin who truly goes on the journey towards greater strength throughout the film. She could be viewed as a “final girl”, except that completely ignores her own autonomy in each situation. She gets accused by her family of being the witch causing them problems, but only because she had pulled that particular tool out of her bag in an earlier attempt to get her twin siblings to behave. She is adamant that the twins, later, are the ones who are communing with the devil, and it leads directly to the penultimate night. It should also be noted that, in many of the situations, had the family listened to Thomasin, instead of being fearful or dismissive of the young woman, things would have probably gone better for them all. And, the final scenes show that Thomasin’s journey is complete, although her expression presents a mixture of joy and trepidation.
Make no mistake, this is Thomasin’s story, with the rest of the family as players in the cast. We don’t actually know the root cause of the exile, but we do know that William’s hubris is what eventually forced the hand of the village elders. It isn’t too much of a stretch, however, to look upon the later events of the film, and the contrary nature of Thomasin with regards to the rest of her family, the think that perhaps it was something she said or did that started it all. Pretty much the only member of the family who Thomasin seems to feel any real kinship with is Caleb, and even that is becoming strained as he is becoming more like William with every failed endeavor.
The Witch presents its tale simply, with little flourish of color or variation, but it doesn’t need it. The color palate is somber, foreboding, helping to convey the emotions the family must be feeling knowing that their farm is failing, and that they may have to return humbled before those who exiled them. The darker color scheme also serves as a reminder that there is no guarantee that even that would work. What splashes of color do pop up almost serve as a sort of wish fulfillment, especially notable in Caleb’s run-in with the witch. This, along with the deliberate pace and strong performances, helped ground a clearly supernatural tale in a level of realism.
That is, all up until the very end of the film. Yes, I’m going to talk about the end of the film, and my thoughts. This is your warning to get away before I say too much.
Okay. Seriously, this is your warning.
Good? Good. The ending of The Witch took, what I felt at the time, to be a strong left turn. A movie that had clearly kept at least one foot dangling in a realistic creation suddenly abandoned that entirely. Setting a film about witchcraft in 17th century America, there are two clearly defined paths to travel, and a few more complicated twists and turns to find something newer. One route is to confirm that yes, witchcraft is real, the devil has had his hand in everything from the beginning, and everything supernatural happened exactly as shown. The other route is to explain away everything as an ergot-induced hallucination, and that all of the “magic” acts were conducted by the victims themselves. Honestly, I was glad that The Witch did not take the second route, and even the conversation with Black Philip didn’t bother me. It was shortly thereafter, just before the end credits. Where the film had seemingly made it clear that there was only one witch terrorizing the family, we are confronted with an entire coven. That specifically is what bothered me. Not how the coven leaves the area. The sheer numbers. I honestly felt like the film would have been more powerful had they simply showed only one witch. I even thought initially that cutting to the end just prior to the final reveal would have been preferable, but that takes away the true moments of triumph at the end, and, without that, some of the film would have rang much more hollow.
All of that said, looking back, can I say that I recommend The Witch? That’s actually a much harder question to answer. For me, it is currently in line to be this year’s It Follows, a movie that resonated with me, and made me want to have more people see it so that I could pick their brains about it. By the same token, I definitely understand where people are left questioning if this film even qualifies as horror, even though I can’t imagine what other genre it could possibly belong to. I mention It Follows again for a specific reason. That was also a movie where audiences seemed to either greatly enjoy it, or find the entire thing trite, silly, and a waste of time. I feel that The Witch hits that same sort of dividing of audiences. If you’re interested, decide how much you want to know going in. And don’t expect it to be the next earth-shattering horror entry. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t going to be that for you, but expecting it to fulfill that promise sight unseen is setting it up for a monumental task, one that not even Black Philip could help it with.