(Spoiler alert - I discuss the ending, etc.)
What is interesting about this movie (and others like it) is that it reclaims the reins of horror – at least in terms of supernatural horror. Some movie-goers have reported that it wasn’t scary enough – or even – that it was boring! It would be easy to respond snootily – to say that their obvious lack of intelligence is to blame – but your basic, garden-variety horror fan is probably more likely to prefer multiple thrills and spills, blood and gore.
True aficionados of horror have an appreciation for the psychological and supernatural elements of this movie. In early cinema (including the history of horror fiction, art etc.)
the idea of not knowing what was behind the door, under the bed and so on – was infinitely more terrifying and exciting than actually facing the demon, monster and such like. (H.P. Lovecraft - for example.) It’s true that we’ve evolved (and some would say devolved!) in terms of our taste for horror over the years – not to mention the desensitization that goes along with the desire for more and more action and mayhem.
Film makers relying heavily on special effects have gone to great lengths to depict every nuance of a villain/creature and their horrible deeds – to the point where we all know the tricks. Like an adult at a puppet-show – we can see the strings.
Some of us are tired of seeing the strings. Some of us enjoy being riveted to the edge of our seats and forced to think beyond what’s been shown to us. Some of us like a story that has been properly researched, with a plot and characters that are true to the period as well as a movie that builds tension without trying to hit all targets and tropes.
It cheapens the experience.
First-time director – Robert Eggers (who also wrote the screenplay) harkens back to the days where the supernatural (or at least – the belief in it) was all too real. The Puritan hysteria over witchcraft was peaking – after a long history of witch-hunting and folklore filled with stories that spooked adults and children alike. Apparently the director has always been fascinated with witchcraft and his production team worked with American and English museums – even consulting with 17th century agricultural experts – in order to create an authentic movie about a banished family trying to make a life in the harsh wilderness.
The movie is rich with symbolism: the silver cup (silver = moon, feminine energies, receptivity etc - so when it is stolen from Katherine - it's like her last vestiges of womanhood have been forsaken); the hare (fertility, shapeshifting etc); the goat (the Devil); the raven (death etc.) Also - blood in various forms: death, coming of age, energy and many others.
The story is about William and his family – banished from a 17th century Puritan plantation – after he challenges the religious authorities. William, Katherine (his pregnant wife) and their children leave the plantation, finally building a farmstead close to a large, dense forest – which (unbeknownst to them) just happens to be inhabited by witches.
After the baby (Samuel) disappears during an innocent game of peek-a-boo with his sister, the family is plunged into mourning - fearing (at first) that the child was taken by a wolf. Eldest child Thomasin – played wonderfully by Anya Taylor-Joy – is immediately thrust into the role of mother while Katherine grieves heavily.
Her grief and guilt are palpable. So is the barely restrained anguish and distrust displayed by her mother (Katherine) – brilliantly acted by Kate Dickie. Having to deal with the young twins (Mercy and Jonas) as well as her grief and chores, Thomasin is doing her best to keep everything kicking along. It doesn’t help that the twins blame Thomasin for the disappearance of their baby brother – taunting her by saying that she’s the witch who
stole the child. They tell her that Black Phillip (the family’s goat – awesome with its combination of playful pet and demonic ferocity) told them about Thomasin being a witch.
She loses it and tells them that she is indeed the witch of the woods – in order to scare them into keeping her secret – as she knows how she will be dealt with if her parents think she is responsible for Samuel’s disappearance.
In the meantime, her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw – wise beyond his years) and her father William (Ralph Ineson – the scariest voice I’ve heard in a long time!) go hunting in the forest. Caleb questions his father about the fact that Samuel wasn’t baptized and wants to know if he’ll go to Hell. William does his best to deal with the questions and ends up revealing a secret: that he sold his wife’s beloved, silver cup in order to buy hunting equipment – as their farm is not yielding enough for the family to survive. He hasn’t told Katherine yet – as he is waiting for her grieving to pan out. (Katherine is
beside herself and continues to cry and pray. She also believes that Thomasin stole her silver cup)
The most horrifying scene (for me, anyway) was when we see what happened to Samuel. The witch in the woods (who turns out to be an old crone - typical and representative of witches in old woodcuts and art) has kidnapped him. When she creeps over to him in her hut (both naked) a chill came over me. Thankfully we don’t see her killing him, but when she’s mashing up the blood and flesh in her cauldron (for the flying ointment) then smearing it on herself and her broom – the fear is real and visceral.
I was thoroughly impressed (and creeped out) when I saw her taking flight late at night. The shot is from behind, as she rides through the thick forest towards a large, looming moon.
Back at the homestead, Thomasin’s parents whisper about sending her away to serve another family. The children overhear it, so the next day, Thomasin and Caleb go off on their own to try and find food for the family. They believe that it will prevent the need for Thomasin to go away. When their dog is freaked by the presence of a rabbit (assumed to be the witch in animal form), Thomasin is knocked off their horse and Caleb disappears.
It turns out that Caleb comes across the witch’s house – where a beautiful young woman comes out and kisses him. (He has been eyeing off his sister’s breasts – as puberty is setting in and he has no one else to look at!)
Later on – after Thomasin finds her way back home (and the family believe that she had something to do with Caleb’s disappearance) her brother returns – naked and bewitched. When the family pray over him, he comes out of his stupor – although momentarily and in an apparent state of ecstasy for Jesus. When he collapses back on the bed and dies, the family is thrown into another state of grief – along with the twins erupting in a feverish accusation towards Thomasin.
Thomasin blames them in turn and William decides to board up all three children in the goat pen – along with Black Phillip. In the night, the children are paid a visit by the witch in the pen – which is another frightening scene. At the same time, Katherine has a vision about her sons coming back to her – along with the silver cup. She breastfeeds Samuel – but is really having her breast pecked by a raven.
When William finds the goat pen destroyed and the goats (all but Black Phillip) killed, he is attacked by Black Phillip after pleading with God to protect his children – admitting his guilt over the silver cup and dragging his family into the wilderness in order to maintain his pride. Black Phillip gores William in a scene that reminds us of the demonic attributes given to goats through the course of Christian history.
Katherine is finally tipped over the edge when she sees that her husband has been killed and her twins have disappeared. She tries to strangle Thomasin, who is forced to defend herself. In a compelling scene, Katherine dies on top of Thomasin – after being stabbed several times with a gardening tool.
Later on, Thomasin finally speaks with Black Phillip, who has taken “human” form (although kept in the shadows, making him more mysterious.) After promising to show her the world, he gets her to sign his book. She then travels into the forest – at night (and naked) – followed by Black Phillip. She comes across a coven of witches performing a Sabbath in the woods. They all start levitating in a scene straight from the paintings of artists such as Goya – with Thomasin joining them – laughing along the way. (Not sure if it was a mixture of hysterical laughter and joy over finally being free.)
When the movie was over – I was (at first) a little disappointed – although I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. Maybe I’ve been affected like many other horror fans – wanting divine retribution or a Hallmark ending. After a few hours of ruminating and talking about it with my husband, I realized that the ending was perfect. Thomasin had no rights as an individual in her family. She had been blamed for everything that had happened and if she’d tried to go back to the plantation, she would have been at the very least – ostracized - or hung as a witch.
That doesn’t mean to say that it was a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them” – rather, Thomasin had been railroaded into the coven – by the very treatment of her religious parents and the community they hailed from.
This brings up an interesting point. Society usually reviles women who are strong and independent - especially if they are not the quintessential beauties we expect them to be. Fair enough – it was more so back then, but we still don’t like to admit that women can be just as murderous and “evil” as men can be – even though history and current events beg to differ. (I'm not saying that Thomasin was evil - as she was damned if she did or didn't!)
It’s perfectly fine to talk about "evil" men and male serial killers – even deifying them and their crimes. With violent movies, video games and crimes going on every minute of the day – we are still horrified when women exemplify the same actions and personalities as their male counterparts.
Women are supposed to be complacent, well-behaved and under control – whether it be by society or the people in their lives. If she chooses to be different – no matter how much she is loved or revered – there is still that stigma which dictates she’s not a “normal” woman. If a woman chooses debauchery or to exhibit dangerous behavior – she is automatically crazy or evil. To be under the influence of drugs or to have suffered a bad childhood or other trauma, is an acceptable reason for a woman to stray from the flock.
For a woman to choose a path that is seemingly unpleasant – or horrifying to most of us – is a terrifying anomaly we don’t usually wish to entertain. (On the other hand - it's sexist to assume that it's understandable when a male is evil, etc. - like men don't have the capacity to be good or that they are naturally bad. A lot of good men have been treated badly and killed by murderous women. But that's my point: it's horrifying when anyone commits a heinous crime - male or female.)
Everyone needs an excuse – if not a reason – for bad behavior. Thomasin was a pure, good girl – despite the accusations and treatment by her family. She was always at risk of being persecuted and killed – whether by the hands of her family or the community. Joining the witches became her salvation. She had joined a “family” that would protect her – unlike anyone else in her life.
Having said that – let me say this: it wasn’t as though William was a monster. Yes – he was proud about his religious differences – which led to the final destruction of his family, but he went into the wilderness with a pioneering spirit and a deep belief that God was guiding him to a greater life. At times, weak-willed (he defers to his wife a lot - which was refreshing for that period) and taking out his frustrations with the wood chopping, he does his best to provide for his family and to protect them as well as he knows how. He is essentially a good man who just happened to make bad decisions.
Then there’s sweet Caleb, who is going through puberty and is at the mercy of his hormones. His heart is in the right place but he falters when he allows himself to be taken in by temptation. The Puritan, religious ideals of the day dictated that he must not stray from the flock – lest he be bewitched and fall into the hands of the Devil. Harvey Scrimshaw was wonderful as Caleb – with his quietly contemplative acting and true immersion into the old language. As a matter of fact – all the actors did well with the language – to the point where I was straining and trying to sort through the “thou’s” etc.
This movie was unsettling but beautifully shot, with a great story and a “magical realism” not often properly portrayed in supernatural movies. Hopefully this will be a siren call for other “horror” movie directors, screenwriters and producers: scale back the “schlock” and produce more thought-provoking movies with artistic altruism. Remember that there are still some of us left who enjoy intrigue, mystery and provocation that does not require everything to be laid out for us. The imagination is infinitely more horrifying in terms of “filling in the blanks” – than a continuous blast of special effects, blood, gore and gratuitous violence and action.
Make us think. Educate us – because entertainment has become a “color by the numbers” routine which usually insults those of us with a certain level of intelligence.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m an avid fan of horror – but it has become incredibly formulaic over the past 20 years. I am rarely truly shocked or entranced by horror. I don’t mind a splash of blood here and there or random gore – but we all know its ketchup, CGI, special effects and make up! I believe that horror has come full-circle – thanks to this awesome movie. Looking forward to more from Eggers and other horror film creators who might dare to step outside the circle!