Sunday, February 21, 2016

... review of The Witch: A New England Folktale...

In 1630 New England, panic and despair envelops a farmer (Ralph Ineson), his wife (Kate Dickie) and four of their children when youngest son Samuel suddenly vanishes. The family blames Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter who was watching the boy at the time of his disappearance. With suspicion and paranoia mounting, twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) suspect Thomasin of witchcraft, testing the clan's faith, loyalty and love to one another.

Yesterday, my fella and I went to see Robert Eggers’ The Witch (stylized as The VVitch), a film that is being called “one of the most disturbing horror films in recent memory” and which the writer/producer calls a "New England folktale.” I lived in Massachusetts for a bit and I’ve never been more home-sick or depressed in my life. When I have nightmares, they are always set in New England… that’s how much this girl is freaked out by the place. Boston…Salem… beautiful places to visit but not longer than a week please. That being said, watching a story that begins with a Puritan family set in 1630s New England already makes my skin crawl. When the film begins, the family (William- father; Katherine-wife/mother; Thomasin- eldest daughter; Caleb-eldest son; Mercy and Jonas- fraternal twins; and Samuel-baby) is being exiled from the community due to a disagreement of beliefs, presumably how the patriarch of the family leads his family’s worship. The family leaves with relatively little possessions and finds a piece of land outside of the community and beside a forest, which the mother has forbidden her children to enter. If you can put yourself in their modest Puritan shoes for a moment that in itself is terrifying.

Months later the family has built a house and farm on the land and Katherine has given birth to Samuel. This entertains the first set of questions: How in the world was it possible to have built two rather large structures (the house and the barn), a fence, and started built a garden with crops all in a little over a half year? The wife is pregnant and the eldest son looks, at best, to be in his very early teens (my fella and I debated the possible age with my fella concluding “an old twelve”).

There are some characteristics of folktales that can give hints to viewers. Many folktales explain how something came to be. They often include a hero or heroine who is isolated or cast out of some type of community. When evil occurs, the heroine must be aided by supernatural forces, such as a magical object or an enchanted creature. Of course, we don’t have to go very far considering the movie’s title. But since this is the beginning of the film, I was still thinking of realism so that leaves the heavy lifting to the eldest daughter, the only possible character able to help her father lift materials to build a roof on each of these buildings. Although, it is possible that Thomasin was a great deal of help since she does, in fact, assist her father in various ways throughout the film. We were quite moved by the father-daughter relationship.

As most of the trailers show, the beginning of the movie shows Thomasin playing peek-a-boo with infant Samuel when he is suddenly abducted and taken into the woods. Viewers do not see who or what takes the child but we do see the rustle of branches and movement of trees. The father speculates that it is a wolf but viewers actually become a witness to the abduction so any of the characters’ speculations are lost on us because we know.

And SPOILER ALERT….I’m going to give a pretty big tidbit away so you might want to look away because if you like surprises I am going to ruin it for you…hence SPOILER ALERT!....
Moments after this scene, we see that it is indeed a witch who not only takes Samuel back to her home but kills the baby rubbing the blood all over herself and her broom.  Academic nerd response by my fella, who clearly is looking at the film through a Freudian lens, is that this shows the witch’s masculine power as the process of rubbing the blood on her broom resembles the way in which males masturbate. I just thought the visuals were intended to look aggressive. My fella responds, “Sex can be aggressive.”
END SPOILER ALERT so you can return to reading now….

Katherine is distraught by Samuel's abduction and spends her days crying and praying to God. You can also see the beginning of some of the blame being focused towards Thomasin.

Another characteristic of folk tales is animal characters. The Witch includes two significant characters. First, the family has a black goat named Black Phillip; and there is a rabbit that appears in the woods. At one point William tries to shoot it but the gun backfires. Black Phillip does not have love for William either but I’ll leave that for the movie-goers. Thomasin’s younger twin sibling, twins being historically uncanny, play and talk to Black Phillip; apparently, Black Phillip talks to them as well. Mid-film, the female twin, Mercy brings up the witch who lives in the woods. When Thomasin jokes with her sister, anyone privy to the history of the Salem Witch trials knows that this isn’t going to end well… but then, Eggers isn’t following the traditional rules of folk tales; he isn’t following the traditional rules of horror films; and, he certainly challenges American viewers ideas of the “happily ever after.”

Did I love everything about the film? No, but I’m not much of a fan of folk tales and I’m not so keen on the ending for several reasons but that is a matter of taste over quality of the product.

Did I think you should see the film? Absolutely! My fella and I have continued to discuss the film and are still processing our thoughts.

We both thoroughly enjoyed The Witch. I would watch it again if only to find more subtle clues throughout and, of course, Eggers’ meticulous attention detail in order to recreate the period. It’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen in ages. 


  1. The preview at the theatres scared the pants off me, so I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to sit through the whole thing without having to cover my eyes for most of it. Kind of makes a person think twice about spending the money to see a movie if they already know they won't see much of it! Anyways, I blame the goat. They have evil-looking eyes.

    1. That should be a bumper sticker! "I blame the goat. They have evil eyes!"