Monday, October 02, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: The Witch: A New England Folktale

In the song ‘God Was Drunk When He Made Me’, Jim White wonders “who built the house of brotherly love / then let the Devil come dancing in?” Applied to Robert Eggers’s debut film ‘The Witch’, the answer would be William (Ralph Ineson). It’s 1630-ish in New England and we first meet William on trial for the village elders and vehemently refusing to back down on a point of Biblical interpretation. Result: he, his heavily pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are expelled from the community and left to fend for themselves farming a grim patch of land near a forest reputed to be haunted by a witch.

The sheer amount of offspring William has fathered is the first indication that he might not be as Godly as he’d like everyone – including his immediate family – to believe. Nor is he above selling a silver cup belonging to Katherine and letting Thomasin take the blame for its disappearance. And he’s pretty quick to backtrack when a stern theological lecture to Caleb ends with the boy in tears, convinced that if he dies young he’ll have never shriven himself of original sin and his soul will be damned. Caleb’s already confused at his elder sister blooming into womanhood and feverish with guilt every time he looks at her. Meanwhile, Mercy and Jonas get up to infantile devilment around the farmstead – Thomasin is chastised as she’s supposed to be watching them – and make up songs about “black Philip”, a demonic alter ego of the family’s goat.

Did I say something earlier about “the house of brotherly love”? Quite the opposite, actually. House of familial antagonism, more like. House of dysfunctional relationships. House of claustrophobically ratcheted tension. Still, Katherine’s just delivered the latest addition to the brood, and the devil’s about to come dancing in.

The catalyst is when Thomasin babysits near the woods. In the split second that her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo, the baby disappears. William desperately searches. The family experience the first symptoms of collective hysteria. Thomasin becomes persona non grata. Meanwhile, an expressionist vignette details in horrible terms what happened to the infant.

The atmosphere becomes unbearable. William’s fear-of-God piety drives Katherine to madness. Thomasin responds to Mercy and Jonas’s taunts that she’s a witch by playing up to the role and terrifying them. The twins soon exhibit signs of mania. Caleb determines to leave the home, a course of action that sees him lost in the wood and drawn to a strange, seductive woman. When he’s returned home, a few days later, in the middle of an appropriately melodramatic storm, he seems transformed.

Eggers’s script draws on journal entries and parish records of the time, constructing as much of the dialogue as possible from historical sources. Coupled with Craig Lathrop’s determinedly unromantic production design and Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography – which uses mainly natural light and candlelight – the result is an austere and mirthless film, as serious in its intent as anything by Bergman. The family’s dynamic is shown as antagonistic if not outright hateful. In terms of their faith – or rather, of William’s unblinkingly enforced version of faith – the behaviours they display exist at extremes: snivelling, self-effacing piety or holier-than-thou occupation of the moral high ground. There is no middle ground: no room for grace or love.

Enter the Devil, at first because the door of misused religion has been left open for him; finally by explicit invitation.

Eggers takes a slow-burn approach to the material, and plays enough of the early scenes with a degree of ambiguity: ‘The Witch’ could pass as a psychological case study for much of its running time. Even the scene which details the baby’s fate is staged with such elliptical unworldliness that it’s easy to read as fearful projection rather than actuality. Indeed, it’s not till Caleb returns and his story is resolved in a perverse parody of religious ecstasy that Eggers comes down firmly on the side of supernatural elements.

And when he does, the sequence of scenes and images that follow – startling and visceral moments that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling – prove to be the stuff of which great horror films are made. That’s “great” as in genuinely scary, by the way. “Great” as in cerebral; as in moments that make you think even as they freak you on. Moments that are included not for their shock value (though several of them an incredible punch in that department) but for what they mean on a deeper, more primal level.

‘The Witch’ is an astounding film: controlled, atmospheric, perceptively written, incredibly well acted (Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw in particular are outstanding; no-one else puts a foot wrong) and scored to chilling effect by Mark Korven. That it’s Robert Eggers’s first feature is nothing short of miraculous. Whether it’s the Almighty doling out the miracles isn’t something I’d want to put money on.

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