The Witch; Or This is What We Assume Virginia is Like

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Hello and Hallo-welcome back to another Witchy Wednesday, where we review films featuring witchly behaviour! You join your hosts, Lilly and Andy, who are taking a look at a newish movie set in oldish New England!

Today’s film offering: The Witch

Andy: Is there any religion more terrifying than full-on 17th Century Puritanism? I’m not disparaging anyone’s faith here, but these were people who lived in absolute terror of a wrathful deity and for whom every misfortune was a mark of Divine Disfavour. No bad luck for these people – the universe takes a poop in your stocking, you’ve done Something Wrong. These were the same zealots who cancelled Christmas, and hanged a lot of innocent people in Salem, Massachusetts.

I feel they would not have approved of Hallowfest.

Our plot follows a family with a patriarch who is extreme even by these exacting standards. Fearing that his community is not God-fearing enough, he marches them off into the wilderness to build a homestead away from the corrupting influence of his neighbours – the precise nature of their theological disagreement is not elaborated on (probably for the best) – but his new neighbour may be a far more pernicious influence, especially on his teenage daughter and eldest son.

Here things take a very interesting turn. We are used to seeing the forces of science do battle with the supernatural, and when faith comes to the fore, it is usually an overwhelmingly positive and unquestioned force; the most obvious example is the use of crucifixes against vampires, but the noble priests doing battle for Reagan’s soul in The Exorcist spring to mind. In this though, the faith of the family seems to be, at its very best, a neutral force.

Lilly: And at worst an ineffective effort to ward off something that was already sneaking in there easily, what with the father’s zealotry being so strong the family was booted out of the colony. 

Andy: The trouble is the faith of the family is an incorporeal one – the dangers that affect their immortal souls are of a spiritual nature. The idea that there is a mad witch in the woods aiming to mash their children into a fine paste for … reasons is outside the bounds of their view of the world as ephemeral and transient.

Lilly: Meaning shit gets real, and they don’t know it. Or do they? Or is it? Let’s pray. And when the baseline of the faith set up in this film is too hardcore for the colonists and only shaped in the beliefs of the father, you know it’s not the sort of faith that actually saves you. It’s the kind that gets Dracula laughing at you as he tosses the crucifix to the side, because it only hurts him if you believe.

Andy: There are some very good performances in this, particularly from the two oldest child characters upon whom most of the story depends. In this world of exacting and pure standards, they are wonderfully flawed, and wonderfully human.

Lilly: I have high standards for children in horror films (foolish, I know), however these two met and surpassed my expectations. Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy (who is actually twenty, but that’s still a child to me, whatever), kudos to you. They felt more human than any of the other characters, and sorry, that includes the young twins who I just hated from the get go. And hate is a strong word, I know that. I’m not sure if it was meant or not–like was I supposed to dislike them? Did they want that? Mind you, who likes bratty kids? Who, I tell you!

Andy: Anyway, if there is anything this movie absolutely nails, it is atmosphere. There is a sense of omnidirectional dread in its washed out colour palette and doomy score, not to mention the fact it goes to great lengths to disguise in which direction the woods actually are from the house, so they seem like they are everywhere.

Lilly: Absolutely. Even when I wasn’t sure what I was afraid of, I had a sense of ‘oh no’ throughout the film, with certain shots lingering for just the right amount of time to tease something was going to happen, to only then ease off. You are brought to the brink of agonizing tension a few times.

Andy: However, and this is a big caveat, does it actually amount to very much? Well, kinda. It’s strange to think about everything this movie does right, and struggle to see what it does wrong, but still come away with a reaction slightly above ‘meh’. It’s worth watching, and I can definitely see someone else enjoying this more than I did, but for some reason, it doesn’t leap out as one of the best examples from horror from recent years. It lacks … something. Maybe a sense of fun.

Lilly: I can talk myself in circles about this film. I like it because it parallels a teenage girl’s budding sexuality with a real physical threat, making it so her religious family has difficulties pulling apart the two threads. I dislike it because all that tension building seems to fizzle out in the last fifteen minutes, and what should be a dramatic climax just seems dozy. That said, I like that it becomes almost dreamlike. Then there is the family relations that I love, with the animosity between the mother and daughter as the girl grows into a woman and the mother’s jealousy about her husband’s attentions to their daughter shows, as well as her bitterness as she blames Thomasin for the loss of her baby (it was in the trailer, shut up, it’s not spoiling). I loved the confusing feelings Caleb has about his sister, because on one hand, she is his sister, family, on the other, she is a girl, and those are becoming more interesting in his eyes. I like how the monster of the piece prays on these little bits and pieces, those cracks each family member has, and pulls them apart, one by one. I dislike how we see the witch at all (surprise, whatever), because the family tearing itself apart without any proof of a witch outside their superstitions (and no proof for the audience, either) would be terrifying in itself. I like how little bits and pieces of witch folklore are so neatly put in the film without excuse or explanation because you are at a film called The Witch, you should know some shit about witches. And yet I don’t really want to watch it again. But maybe?

So it’s a mixed review from us. Absolutely watch it, absolutely form your own opinion, and absolutely let us know what you think!

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