February 21, 2016

Movie Review: The Witch, A New England-Folktale (2015)

So last night Tony and I saw The Witch, director Robert Eggers highly praised horror film set in early Puritan New England. As we walked home along the Muddy River (where the estate of executed witch Anne Hibbens was located) and rabbits frolicked around us in the moonlight, I thought: how am I going to write about this movie? 

I've been a horror movie fan for most of my life, and I've been writing about New England folklore for many years. I saw The Witch from this dual perspective, so I'm going to first write about it as a film, and then about its folkloric aspects.

I really, really enjoyed The Witch. It's been getting a lot of hype as being incredibly scary, which I think does it a disservice. It's more of an art film with horrific aspects than a straight up horror film. Don't go into it expecting screaming teenagers being chased through the woods by an axe-wielding maniac. Yes someone does wield an axe, and teens do indeed scream, but it's not Friday the 13th. Rather than terrifying, I found it spooky, unsettling, and morally icky, but also emotionally resonant and thought-provoking.

If you want to be surprised about this movie don't read any further. In other words, SPOILERS AHEAD.

The premise is relatively simple. In 1630s New England, a family is banished from a Puritan settlement for being too religiously strident. Exiled but unbowed, Mom, Dad and their five children carve out a small farm a day's journey away from the settlement. Things go well at first, but by the fall their crops are failing, and one day when oldest daughter Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother Samuel he suddenly disappears. The parents suspect a wolf took him, but the name of this movie isn't The Wolf.

That all happens within the first ten minutes. Things only get worse for the next eighty. The narrative is a twisty mix of family psycho-dynamics and mythic imagery. The tight-knit pious family is realistically dysfunctional. Did they really think settling on the edge of an unknown continent would be easy? Dad is successful only at splitting logs, the children tell vicious stories about each other, Mom is getting cold feet about the whole pioneer thing, and their oldest daughter is reaching the peak of puberty. At times the movie implies the supernatural shenanigans are just the imaginings of a stressed out family in a bad situation, but then shifts to show powerful, archetypal images that indicate the supernatural forces menacing the family are quite real. A woman in a red cape in a tangled forest. A rabbit that can't be killed. Baby Samuel's real fate...

My favorite scenes in the film involve the young twins Mercy and Jonas, who are simultaneously cute, bratty and creepy, like the Olsen Twins of Full House mixed with Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem. They spend a lot of time frolicking with the family goat Black Phillip. The twins say he talks to them, but maybe they're just playing a game. Or maybe not.

Robert Eggers is from New Hampshire, and says as a child he thought the New England woods were haunted. He's trying to capture an Olde Tyme New-Englande vibe in this movie, and I think he succeeds in capturing what we know or imagine the early Puritan era looked like. The colors are muted, the homes are dark, and the landscapes have a familiar Northeast gloom. The family's home is festooned with bunches of drying diseased corn, making it look like the grimmest Thanksgiving you've ever imagined. The brief scene of the family leaving the Puritan settlement was filmed at Plimoth Plantation here in Massachusetts, so I think that comparison is apt.

Now onto the folklore in the film. The movie's full title is The Witch: A New-England Folktale. Although is is not based on any actual witchcraft cases or particular folk stories, Eggers did a lot of research into 17th century life and folk beliefs. Much of the movie accurately reflects authentic New England folk stories.

There are bewitched children pinched and tortured by unseen attackers. There are ghosts. There is Protestant prayer, both fearful and ecstatic. There are bewitched farm animals, and familiar spirits suckling on human blood. The Devil appears as a man in black with a book awaiting signatures. There is the overwhelming sense of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God and the accompanying fear of damnation.

Ultimately though this is a movie by a modern American aimed at a modern audience. Traditional New England witch stories are usually about societal issues. Accused witches were seldom family members but were usually shunned members of the community. The stories often follow this pattern: a poor person asks a wealthier person for food or money. The wealthier person refuses, and the poor person mutters threats. Shortly thereafter bad things happen to the wealthier person. Cattle don't give milk, children sicken, crops fail. The poor person is suspected of witchcraft.

Eggers' film does not follow this classic pattern, but instead focuses heavily on psycho-sexual issues. To support this focus, many of the film's later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart. Their nocturnal gatherings didn't involve naked gyrating hags, but rather fully clad people standing around listening to the Devil lecture them. They were an inverted version of the Puritan Sunday meetings, not a crazed bacchanalia. At their wildest they sometimes had fiddle music and square dancing. Square-dancing witches wouldn't make for a very scary movie.

And though I love the goat in this movie, the Devil seldom appears as a goat in New England witch stories. Most often he appears as a man richly dressed in black, but when he does take animal shape he appears in a variety of forms, including a cat and a hog. Modern people tend to think of Satan as goatish, though, so I understand why this makes sense for the film.

Finally, many traditional New England witch stories are actually about how to defeat a witch. They describe the witch's predations only to relate how they can be stopped. They are instructional tales told to help younger generations manage malevolent forces. They are not grim or pessimistic.

Witches were bad, but their magic could easily be foiled by simple measures. Keeping urine in a jar full of nails. Hammering a horseshoe above the door. Placing bay leaves around the window. Burning the hair of a bewitched child. All of these could effectively stop a witch's attack. The world was full of evil forces, but the early settlers were optimistic that ultimately they could be defeated.

I think the ending of The Witch is morally ambivalent, but is it optimistic? Probably not, but then again, much like square-dancing witches, it's probably not what a modern audience is looking for. 


Steven E. Belanger said...

Very good review, up until the end. The naked witches' coven at the conclusion of the movie shows that evil has in fact won. But I loved the references to Jonathan Edwards and other New England fire-and-brimstone Puritannical thought. Goats, by the way, were also European witch constructs, especially British. I especially thought it was interesting that the movie showed the dangers of how all-encompassing religious thought can turn into paranoia and judgment--but then shows that these people needed some sort of defense from witches after all! The movie takes itself very seriously, yet still packed a creepy punch and contained some seriously vicious scenes that more gory horror films wouldn't go near. Slow-paced to build the tension, but a very successful horror film in a different kind of way.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Steven! I'm glad you liked the review and the Edwards reference. The high school American lit class finally paid off!

I found the ending a little ambivalent because maybe for Thomasin things would actually improve - no brother ogling her, no mother throttling her, no more father trying to sell her into servitude. I realized this morning that the movie starts with her standing in a room full of heavily dressed Puritans, takes her to a farm on the boundary of the wilderness, and ends with her in a clearing full of naked witches. There's a clear trajectory to the narrative. Maybe this really is her chance to live deliciously, as a certain someone in black suggests, and to be liberated.

On the other hand, the witches in this movie really are as bad as fairytales tell us, if not worse, so at what price does the liberation come? And although her family members are flawed none of them particularly deserve what happens to them - unless you really accept the notion that everyone is born a sinner? The punishment seems much worse than the crime, but if the witches and Satan are real, then isn't God real too?

Anyway, that's why I found the ending ambivalent. I found it to be a complicated movie, even though in some ways it is very simple and linear.

Thanks again for the comment!

Sean said...

Checking in from Bangor, Maine.. I saw The Witch on Friday and enjoyed it for the most part. I liked that the actors spoke in an early New England dialect, it was a courageous move on the producers' part...although I sensed that a lot of people in the audience weren't getting into it much for that reason. It's generally a very quiet movie & with popcorn-munching etc. going on, it was sometimes hard to hear the subtle bits of dialogue. One point of historical accuracy I thought was amiss: when the baby Samuel disappeared who at that time wouldn't think that Indians might possibly have kidnapped him? Not trying to be non-P/C, but it's a fact that English settlers & the Native American tribes at that time were constantly in conflict. It's why inland Maine was settled so much later than the coast... settlers felt safer having being bounded on one side by the ocean vs. being surrounded by forests.

Overall I didn't find it to be actually scary, definitely not a boring film, but more grim and unnerving than horrific. It didn't get to me the way The Blair Witch Project did back in the 90s. After seeing that movie (which at the time was easily lampooned due to its "Gen X" nature, though there were a LOT of freaked-out people leaving the theater that night) just driving home 5 miles and noticing shadows in the trees seemed scary. Blair Witch Project was more or less the bar I set before seeing The Witch, and I'd have to say it came in somewhat under that bar. I'd still recommend it to historical movie fans, less so to mainstream horror fans.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sean!

Thanks for the comment. I also really liked the dialect, but I think it might have been a hard sell for some people. I agree with you about the sound - this is a quiet movie. At first I thought maybe the sound system in the theater was wonky. The audience I saw it with was well-behaved though so I could still hear the dialogue.

Blair Witch was probably scarier in a traditional sense. In contrast, The Witch isn't a "hide your eyes something's going to jump out of the darkness" type of movie, although some really crazy stuff happens towards the end. I think your description of it as grim and unnerving is 100% correct. But I want to see it again!

Jen said...

I stumbled onto your blog while in search of something else and found myself hooked on your writings. It is so refreshing to find someone who is as interested in old New England as I am. A fellow Bostonian, I come from the South Shore, the direct opposite of you, but have a fascination with the history the North Short carries. More specifically, I am an avid Salem witch trials fan. It started from when I was younger, completely in awe of what happened there. When I got older I was able to do more research on my own through books, the internet and frequent visits to the town itself. I dove deeper and deeper into the details of the place, the people who lived there at the time and the history of Salem and surrounding area. Upon seeing a trailer online for The Witch, I was instantly thrilled to see such a movie finally make it. I absolutely loved it and while others I know who also saw it were not exactly as happy as I was, I found myself explaining the stories behind the story to them. For some, this helped them to understand what they had seen. However, as for myself, it made me want to know more about the folklore. While I know of these stories and were able to somewhat pick them out in the movie, I have only skimmed the surface. This is how my search led to your blog, a very nice mistake! Which leads me to my question for you... I was in search of old New England folklore, including the very ones as portrayed in the movie The Witch. After typing in every possible combination of words into Google, I have yet to find what I am looking for. What book or books would you recommend that have the folklore that I am looking for?

Your help is much appreciated!

Deb said...

Check New York Public Library on Facebook. They have a post about the movie with references the writer used in his research. Sorry I can't get to the link right now.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Jen and Deb!

Thank you for the comments!

Deb, I will need to check out those references.

Jen, fellow Bostonian! Unfortunately there isn't any single book that contains all the New England folklore. However, if you search through my blog for the words "witch" or "magic" you should find lots of references. Many of the stories are only contained in old town histories or local folklore books.

I would also recommend Richard Godbeer's book The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Godbeer is a historian and the book is academic, but it does give a lot of details about New England witchcraft folk magic.

I'm going to also promote my own book, LEGENDS AND LORE OF THE NORTH SHORE, which has witch stories from the North Shore from the 1600s to the 1800s. It's short and written for a general audience and has some good artwork inside as well. (Self-promotion now over).

If you want a really massive book about the Salem trials, I would recommend Marilynne Roach's THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS. A DAY-BY-DAY CHRONICLE OF A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE. This book is literally a day-by-day account of the Salem trials and their aftermath. It's super-detailed and about 700 pages long. Not a light read, but every time I browse through it I find something new and interesting.

You might want to get the Godbeer and Roach books from a library before buying them, in case they are not to your taste.

Hope this helps!

Jen said...

Thank you Peter and Deb!

Your input and suggestions are greatly appreciated and I am already looking into all of them. Peter, no shame in self promotion! I can't wait to read your book!

Paula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paula said...

Thanks for your review. My name is Paula, and I am from Santiago, Chile. Always felt some fascination for New England's folk tales, quite beyond movies. That aspiration led me many times from Ohio's deep into the Amish country, until roads down the east coast (Maine, Salem, Boston, etc.), always searching for some sort of enchantment in the lands, wondering where that yearning comes from... and of course, couldn't help to watch this movie, although the official release was delayed in my country.

I found it dark, symbolic and full of communication elements (perhaps as you mentioned, the part where it was adapted for a broader audience), that allowed the spectator to come in and take a sit. Let's do not forget that after all, fears were not kept by generations in their original shape; they adapted, so they could slid into our nightmares easily, and mess up with our sense of safety. However, beyond that, this movie recalled in me some untamed wilderness I've felt in my trips, whenever I found myself alone either in Alaska or Patagonia; a very real sense of power so great and so real, that has drove me scared and amazed at the same time. Then again, it also deals with freedom, women-hood and the transgressive image of female in a puritan society and the so called "Witch" image, also a transgressive representation of independent and sexually free women for the historic period.
I enjoyed the film, found it rich and quite diverse; not to mention it was a recurrent dream of the director, and expiation that found place in the cinema expression. Now on details and cultural background, I will also take your recommendations. Thank you for that!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Paula! Thanks for the comment. I love that you write this:

"However, beyond that, this movie recalled in me some untamed wilderness I've felt in my trips, whenever I found myself alone either in Alaska or Patagonia; a very real sense of power so great and so real, that has drove me scared and amazed at the same time."

I've never been to either of those places, but the movie did stir up a lot of emotions and feelings for me, feelings which for me are tied with wild weather, silent forests, and old houses. Maybe it is the powerful archetype of the witch? All in all, it was a very evocative movie1

Unknown said...

So, we have finally closed the book on 2010. Now, as we transition into the new year, this is when most people reflect back on the year before. In the movie world, this is also when critics and movie lovers take the time to review the past year. Not to mention, this is awards season. With the Critics' Choice Awards in just a couple of weeks and the Oscars less than two months ago, suffice to say the red carpet is officially out. Today, I'm going to throw myself into that very ring as we bring you Couch Potato Club's 2010 Movie Awards.
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