"The Witch" (2015) falls short of its aim

by Andrew Kingsley | 2/21/16 6:00pm

There is no boil, boil, toil and trouble, hooked noses or broomsticks to be found in “The Witch” (2015), the debut feature from Robert Eggers. Set in pre-Salem witch trial New England, the film takes folklore and written narratives from the era and spins them into a period piece of unsettling magnitude. Eggers spotlights this rarely studied era, and captures the paranoiac underpinnings that led to the mass hysteria of the 1692 witch-hunts.

“The Witch” fittingly begins with a trial, in which an overzealous family of six casts themselves out of their “impious” New England village. Having already emmigrated from England, the family re-resettles in an isolated clearing beside an ominous wood. Since the Bible deems the wilderness a cursed, lawless land, the Puritans saw the forest as a center of demonic forces.

Eggers translates this abject immensity of the forest, a black abyss waiting to engulf the family like a tidal wave of trees hovering over their life raft. In its disorder and darkness the forest becomes unholy, a pagan sublime that battles the Puritan divine.

As their crops slowly rot away and their newborn son disappears, the family’s unraveling begins, as they look to the forest, and then each other, for answers. Slowly, unknown forces consume the family, until their paranoia ravages their sanity as they are picked off one by one like the ill-fated crew members in “Alien” (1979).

However, the film depicts the witch as a state of mind rather than a body. The young twins sing folk songs about witches, and the eldest daughter, Thomasin, threatens them with spells. The figure of the witch represents embodied paranoia, a fear of the unknown or the psychological refuge for the distressed. Beyond brief glimpses of obscured, Goyaesque women devouring flesh, the titular witch remains a figment of the family’s fracturing psyche. Are the violent events products of their pious psychosis and paranoia, eruptions of repressed, unholy desires or indeed the black magic of nearby witches?

We take on the family’s hysteric head turning, unsure of our alliances and enemies, much like we do while watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982).

Could it be the hysteric mother, the pious father, Thomasin, the obnoxious twins, the libidinous son Caleb or perhaps their goat, Black Phillip? But the film does not indulge audiences in big, ghastly reveals of witchcraft and demonism. “The Witch” deals in terror and dread, anticipatory responses, rather than horror which centers on revelation and actualization.

This aesthetic follows the current indie, art-horror movement exemplified by “The Babadook” (2014), “It Follows” (2014) and “Goodnight Mommy” (2014), which values patient pacing, static long takes and nebulous monstrosities. These films are a reaction to the modern slasher, hyper-dramatic horror films that rely on body counts and jump scares — which are less motivated by horror and more by audience reflex.

“The Witch” employs Baroque tones and darkness, and creates Rembrandtian candlelit tableaux and expansive canvases of the family’s isolation, a quiet yet haunting cinematographic aesthetic. This new wave of artful craftsmanship harkens a new era of horror, brining new life to a genre which has seemed dead and buried since the late 60s and 70s.

However, many of these new art-films struggle under their own stylistic weight, and ultimately buckle or run out of creative steam by reverting to the kitschy tropes of their ideological adversaries.

“The Witch” undermines its subtlety and nuance with trite images of sexy, caped witches, demonic séances and satanic texts. The clarifying epilogue saps the film of its fundamental ambiguity; it feels like an un-twist ending, one that simplifies rather than complicates.

While beautiful and unsettling, “The Witch” seems unsure of its identity, and settles for being a good film rather than a great one.

Rating: 7.5/10

“The Witch” is now playing at the Nugget Theater in Hanover at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

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