Being an unabashed Wiccan sympathizer whose 1980s handfasting (Pagan wedding) ceremony was officiated by Drawing down the Moon author Margot Adler herself, this reviewer has scant patience for the way that witches are usually portrayed by the mass media – horror movies especially. None of the many actual witches I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the years has ever claimed the ability to fly, turn into a hare or blight a crop. Mostly they tend to devote their “arcane” energies to constructive and creative things like becoming knowledgeable about herbal medicine. The goriest authentic Wiccan ritual that I’ve ever heard of involves the cathartic dismemberment of a pomegranate. And no, they don’t even believe in Satan, much less worship him.
Most movies that employ the tired Hollywood trope of scary, bloodthirsty, demon-invoking witches are garbagy enough not to be worth the breath for a political rant, and many become enjoyable in a cheesy way by crossing the line into campy humor. But when an ambitious, talented new filmmaker appears on the scene with a serious art-horror project that’s intensely researched and exquisitely crafted, scaring the pants off audiences at the Sundance Festival, a critic must perforce sit up and take notice. And the issues of religious bias raised by touting such a film as “historically accurate” must be incorporated into one’s appreciation of the product, alongside its artistic value.
Neophyte director Robert Eggers cut his cinematic teeth as a scenic and costume designer, and that experience is a big part of what makes his first feature, The Witch: A New-England Folktale so visually impressive, along with terrific, moody cinematography. Set on the Massachusetts frontier in 1630, six decades before the Salem witch trials, it strains most of the pulp out of the horror genre, persuasively repackaging it through a Masterpiece Theatre lens. It’s one of those movies worth seeing just for the painstaking details of the hand-stitched collars and hand-hewn clapboards.
Eggers clearly did his homework in other ways as well. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from annals of the era, including the writings of Cotton Mather and Samuel Willard, Puritan prayerbooks, the Geneva Bible favored by Calvinists and transcripts of testimony from accusers and the accused in witchcraft trials. That research yielded authentic-sounding but often-indecipherable syntax – especially combined with the actors’ thick Yorkshire accents – and a symbolic palette well-aligned with popular beliefs about the activities of witches during the 17th century.
What Eggers’ script fails in any way to acknowledge, however, is that those written testimonies were generally the results of torture and intimidation on the part of the accused; envy, avarice, antagonism, fear and superstition on the part of the accusers. To present them as accurate descriptions of what real witches actually do raises the question: If we can all agree that blood libel against Jews is a terrible thing, why is blood libel against Wiccans deemed perfectly acceptable? Can you imagine a horror movie being made based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and presented as “historically accurate,” with the excuse that the infamous Nazi forgery is a document that was written during the course of 20th-century history? Such a project would never be tolerated by the moviegoing public. But witches, sadly, are still viewed as fair game – as bad people with dark supernatural powers, not as adherents of a benign nature-based religion.
The Witch would’ve been a brilliant cinematic milestone if it had been couched as psychological horror – if the filmmaker had told his story in such a way that the weird goings-on at an isolated farmstead on the edge of a creepy forest could be explained as the delusions of a family stressed to the mental breaking point by failed crops, near-starvation and obsessive religious guilt. But Eggers, who grew up in New Hampshire, has said in interviews that he was always disappointed to be told that the victims of the Salem hysteria weren’t “real witches,” in league with a real Devil. So, very deliberately, from early on in the film, the demonic forces at work make their corporeal presence known onscreen. An infant who mysteriously disappears is explicitly shown – and not from one of the central characters’ point of view – to be carried off by a “real witch,” butchered, bled and pounded into magical ointment. There’s no room here for the sort of ambiguity that could’ve made The Witch a truly unsettling masterpiece.
As cinema, The Witch still has a lot going for it. The casting of the actors was spot-on, with two Game of Thrones veterans, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, as the overzealous-but-loving parents, along with two promising youngsters: Anya-Taylor Joy as Thomasin, the pubescent daughter who is suspected of communing with the Devil, and Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the next-younger son who gets lost in the woods and wanders home possessed. The characters are far more multidimensional than your average onscreen religious fanatics, and a wild-eyed, nasty-tempered ram named Black Phillip just about steals the show. The musical score by Mark Korven is perfect, creating a genuinely oppressive atmosphere without ever sounding clichéd.
If you’re among the many who consider The Exorcist a high point of cinematic horror, you may find The Witch similarly terrifying. If having to suspend your disbelief in demonic forces gets in the way of your scare reflexes, maybe not so much. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Robert Eggers’ next announced project: a remake of F. W. Murnau’s 1929 silent chiller Nosferatu. Bigotry against vampires doesn’t really get my knickers in a twist.