Film review – The Witch

There has been a lot of buzz floating around about The Witch ever since it hit the festival circuit last year. Rolling Stone promised it would “scare the hell out of you” and declared it “a crafty calling card brimming with beauty and terror” for first time writer/director Robert Eggers. The Atlantic gushed over it, saying it was “a film that conjures its scares not from sharp jumps, but from the eerie hostility of the untamed American wilderness.”

And on, and on, and on.

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I read praise heaped upon praise for the stark foreboding of the unforgiving forest, for the raw desperation of the isolated family, for the power of superstition to cast doubt on those we love most. Critics could not say enough about how wonderfully different this was from your run-of-the-mill slasher, and comparisons to the atmospheric magic of It Follows were plentiful.

To a certain extent, I blame the hype for coloring my viewing experience (a phenomenon perfectly addressed here) but then again It Follows was also hyped and I thought it delivered on its promise several times over. The Witch, on the other hand, left me feeling remarkably underwhelmed as the end credits rolled.

Some spoilers ahead – Plot points and themes

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My first instinct as the lights came up in the theater was to laugh. Not the nervous laugh of someone who has just been emotionally drained by a fine piece of psychological terror, but rather the amused “you got me” laugh of someone who was just tricked into paying to see the equivalent of a student film with a decent costume budget.

The atmosphere, while decidedly desolate, didn’t strike me as all that creepy. But maybe that’s because I took many childhood trips to New England to visit family and I understand that it really is that damp and gray for chunks of the year. More than anything else – more than fear or shock or terror – I honestly just felt sorry for eldest daughter Thomasin.

Right at the start she definitely looked pissed that her dad was too weird to function in town as he thanked the committee of men in funny hats for banishing him from society. So there she is, stuck on the edge of a forest void of edible plants, living in an attic with a younger brother who can’t stop drooling over her cleavage, creepy twin siblings who talk to the family goat, a father whose only skills include chopping wood and praying, and a mother who likes the idea of having babies but not taking care of them.

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Thomasin is old enough to remember what it was like living home in England (where they had “real glass” in the windows) and there is a point where she desperately tries to get her brother to remember as well so that she has someone to commiserate with. She’s the one watching the infant when he disappears (either by wolf or by witch, depending on which weirdo family member you ask) and her mother refuses to forgive her for losing track of the baby she only seemed interested in nursing but not raising.

The film is, at its core, a puberty allegory with all the requisite elements – temptation, loss of innocence, mood swings, anger, desire, and blood.

So. Much. Blood.

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It’s the confusion of “becoming a woman” (a phrase I really detest) coupled with the societal fear of the power of an independent female. And even the independent female, manifested here as the witch, is only granted her power by handing over an unspecified aspect of herself as payment to the devil.

Basically, they could have called this “We Need to Talk About Thomasin” and cut through to the heart of the matter. The family is full of suspicion and doubt about the mysteriously witchy happenings, but there’s nothing unexpected about that since they’re ultra-religious (I suspect perhaps Calvinists?). The same historical setting that provides the isolation also provides predictability in terms of reactions to unexplained phenomena.

Twins speaking in tongues? Must be a witch. Son wanders home naked and disoriented? Totally a witch. Go to milk the goat and get an udder full of blood? Oh yeah, that’s some witchcraft right there. And the obvious person to point the finger at is the exasperated teenage girl who just can’t seem to embrace the prayer and solitary confinement her parents thrust upon her.

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The actors all did admirable jobs in their roles, and I really have nothing bad to say about their performances. They were doing their best with the source material they were given, and I think the youngest children in particular were well cast. Anya Taylor-Joy has some great nuanced facial expressions. Ralph Ineson captures the essence of a man who is in way over his head. Black Phillip really sells the whole demon goat thing.

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But in the end, neither the atmosphere nor the plot were engaging enough to hold my attention. I feel like I need to qualify this by saying that this is not because I don’t appreciate subtlety in the horror genre. I love The Babadook and Let The Right One In. I also love Hellraiser and Halloween. I appreciate a slow mood-builder and I appreciate a bloodbath, each for their own merits.

I didn’t dislike The Witch because it was atypically atmospheric. I disliked The Witch because it was boring. Then again, I’m at a loss trying to come up with a better scary movie about a witch, so maybe this is just the best we’re going to get.

2/5 stars

Film review – It Follows

When I visited Detroit last summer, my first impression was that it would make an amazing setting for a horror movie. I’ve never driven through such a large city that seemed so empty, void of both cars and people. And it wasn’t just a regular kind of empty. It felt stuck in mid-stride, as if it were suddenly but calmly abandoned.

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When I heard someone actually had filmed a horror movie in Detroit, I was instantly on board. Honestly, just knowing that Detroit was the backdrop for It Follows was enough for me to know that I was going to enjoy the film. It was really just icing on the cake when the critics started raving about its fresh take on the genre, although I’m generally wary about any piece of entertainment that comes to me pre-hyped.

The basic premise of the film is fairly simple, and is laid out right there for you in the title. There is some… force. It’s not clear exactly what it is, whether it’s a creature or a spirit or maybe just fear personified. Once you’ve been cursed (more on curse transmission in a moment), this unnamed thing follows you. If it catches up with you, it will kill you. The only way to get it to stop following you is to pass the curse on to another person. But even then, you’re really not safe, because if the person you infected is killed by this force, then it will turn its attention back to following and killing you.

I should pause and say that I’m going to discuss some plot details and cinematography. While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, if you want to go into the theater knowing nothing else beyond the trailer, here is your point to stop reading. Just know that if you’re a fan of horror (in particular psychological horror) I would recommend you see it, and see it on the big screen.

Maika Monroe in It Follows

So, how exactly is this curse transmitted from person to person? Sex, naturally. I’ve been jokingly calling it an STD – Sexually Transmitted Demon. While it could come across as tired horror trope, there are a few reasons I think it doesn’t. For starters, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the sex scenes. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of nudity in the film, but the nudity does not come from the people you would expect it from.

Second, while the characters are young they’re not teenagers (not all of them, anyway). They are not fumbling around, having their first sexual encounters. I think this is an important point, because your classic puritanical horror equates sex with loss of innocence but It Follows definitely does not. What it also does not do is introduce rape into the equation.

Jay (the main female protagonist, played expertly by Maika Monroe) is given this curse from a guy she’s been on several dates with. He doesn’t force himself on her, he woos her. He takes her out a few times and waits for her to initiate sex. It’s not exactly spelled out, but I get the distinct impression that consent is part of the package deal with passing along the curse. That, more than any other aspect of the sexual transmission, is why I would say that this movie is more than just groundbreaking horror – It’s mature horror.

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The other main reason to go see this film (and see it in the theater) is the unbelievably delicious ambiance. It’s due in part to the Detroit setting, but all the choices in cinematography really come together to create something new and exciting. Visually, what I like most about the movie is that it’s totally unclear when it is supposed to take place. The interior home shots could be right out of the late 70s – heavy shag carpeting; wood-paneled television sets with dials and antennae; melamine trays, bowls, tea pitchers and glasses; landline telephones with long spiral cords.

But then again, one of their friends spends the entirety of the film scrolling through The Idiot from an e-reader shaped like a clamshell compact. They drink beer out of modern pop-top cans, iced coffee from Starbucks-esque plastic cups. The cars are classic, the wardrobe both vintage and contemporary. There are no computers in their homes, and aside from the appearance of one in the opening scene, no cell phones in their pockets. It takes place now, and yet it doesn’t. It has no definitive place in time.

The other essential component to setting the mood is the stellar soundtrack. All of the music in the film was composed and performed by an artist named Disasterpeace, and the movie would not be what it is without his contribution. I think the most apt comparison would be Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides (honestly one of my favorite albums, soundtrack or otherwise). It’s the kind of music that causes the hairs on your arms to stand up, that crawls slowly into your ears and makes its way to your brain. The music is a huge part of what makes seeing the movie in the theater imperative.

Considering it started in very limited release (and only just got wider release from some larger theater chains last week) if I were you I would haul ass to a theater and see It Follows while it’s still available to watch on the big screen. The film isn’t perfect, but the plot flaws are minimal and in my opinion overshadowed by the enormity of the concept and the symphonic complexity of the execution.

4.5/5 stars