I’m somewhat uncomfortable with horror movies that take witches as their monster. The history of ‘witchcraft’ is inextricably tied up with horrific events like the Salem trials – events that repeat themselves today across developing countries, events driven primarily by a patriarchal fear of women as transgressors. Those accused of and punished for ‘witchcraft’ are largely women: women who challenge social norms, who question scripture or assert their intelligence or express their sexuality. To uncritically reproduce the iconography of a witch in a contemporary horror narrative is to reinforce a hegemony that regards women who refuse to ‘fit in’ as abhorrent.
That’s not precisely the tack director Robert Eggers takes with his debut feature film, The Witch, which adapts its period narrative – set in 1600s colonial America – from folk tales of the era. To describe Eggers’ approach to witchcraft – grounded in fertility, sexuality and history – as ‘uncritical’ would be a mistake. But while the precise identity of its titular witch (or “vvitch”, if you prefer) remains ambiguous for the greater part of the picture (necessitating some tiptoeing on my part with respect to plot, so consider this fair warning), the film’s focus is ultimately on regurgitating outmoded masculine anxieties rather than interrogating said fears. As a result, the accumulating atmosphere of dread proves an insubstantial fog, dispersing to reveal the paucity of its ideas.
This is not to undersell Eggers’ aesthetic accomplishments. The film’s formal craft and visual nuance are laudable …even if its starkly-conceived, naturally-lit tableaux conceal, rather than enrich, the screenplay’s thematic undertones. I’m leery of cinematographers trumpeting the benefits of natural light; think The Revenant, which smothered much of Lubezki’s impressive cinematography with a samey bleakness. Like Lubezki, The Witch DOP Jarin Blaschke captures the crisp winter emptiness of the American wilderness, while diversifying his palette beyond the skeletal whites, ashen greys and fallow browns of those frontiers (there’s a brief but very memorable flash of red halfway through the film, made more powerful by the otherwise absence of that colour). The thinly-lit interiors, in particular, feel desolate in their darkness, encroached upon by the relentless night. There’s a tactile quality to the darkness here so rarely captured in horror: desolation too often suffocated by sharp artificial lighting.
The weight of that darkness underscores the situation facing the Puritan family at the centre of The Witch. Led by a pair of Game of Thrones alum (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie), their makeshift farm is peopled by eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw – a young actor ill-equipped for the script’s demands), a twin brother and sisters (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and new baby Sam. They were unwelcome in the local town – banished for patriarch William’s interpretation of scripture – and seem equally unwelcome outside its boundaries, with the rough soil producing little more than twisted, inedible husks of blackened corn. The night’s implacable presence is merely one tendril slithering out of the forest, eroding the fragile sanctity of their shelter.
Eggers fosters a sense of wrongness in the wilderness with images of infertility – a bear trap closed on nothing, a chicken’s egg cracked to a bloody foetus – culminating in the disappearance of Sam, who vanishes while playing peek-a-boo with Thomasin. No explanation is offered, but a grim montage of an unnamed crone (Bathsheba Garnett) bathing herself in blood suggests that witchcraft is, indeed, afoot. I don’t use the word ‘crone’ thoughtlessly. The first act of The Witch deliberately and consistently exploits the traditional fear of aged, de-gendered womanhood: the land’s barrenness implicitly aligned with menopause.
Traditionally, the crone is paired with the maiden and the mother, and each of these vertices of the conventional coven are represented in The Witch. Thomasin is the virginal young woman coming of age, her nascent sexuality lusted over by her brother and feared by her parents, who plan to offer her off to another family (presumably as a bride). By and large the film aligns us with Thomasin; it’s far less sympathetic to her mother, Katherine, whose concern for her family is granted a feverish edge by Dickie’s performance (not too far removed from Lysa Arryn). Her portrayal seems to tap into the underlying male fears of the mother-as-witch: a woman granted real power – even if only over her sons.
There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into the character and setting of The Witch. The incorporation of such diverse superstitions into a coherent narrative is impressive, and occasionally reveals the archetypal nature of such stories (as when an apple – presumably poisoned, à la Snow White – tumbles from a delirious Caleb’s mouth). What hamstrings the film is its inability to provide any insight into these primal, patriarchal fears. What do Caleb’s lingering stares at his sister’s cleavage, or Katherine’s obsession with her father’s silver cup tell us, other than that Eggers has an eye for evocative imagery? What do these aspects of the witch – as sexuality, as power, as decay – amount to?
Very little, as far as I can tell. The screenplay’s structure suggests an understanding of what drives this historical fear of women, yet grants it no nuance. Were The Witch bold enough to reproduce an earlier era’s anxieties wholesale – to guide its audience into fearing and despising Thomasin for her youth – it might have stumbled onto something truly transgressive, reminding us how easily the fear of difference can be exploited, even in a ‘more civilised’ time. Alternatively, it could have offered more insight into Thomasin’s character (who remains largely a cipher throughout), while challenging the assumptions that drove men to imagine their daughters sign pacts with devils, the ideology that saw the woods as populated with raving naked sorceresses … rather than meticulously reimagining them.