“The Witch” Reawakens Childhood Nightmares

Anya Taylor-Joy in Robert Eggers’s “The Witch.” Courtesy of A24.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Robert Eggers’s “The Witch.” Courtesy of A24.

Witches have always cast a spell on me. The more they frightened me as a child, the more I loved them. A few years ago, I ranked my top ten witches in screen history, which included iconic crones like Margaret Hamilton and the wicked Queen in “Snow White,” along with such cherished characters as Bernadette Peters’s truth-telling loner in “Into the Woods” and the passive-aggressive Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter.” What makes these women so appealing, regardless of their oft-sinister intent, is their ability to defy the societally imposed constraints of their gender, reveling in their superhuman abilities with cackling glee. To paraphrase the one and only Adele Dazeem, not even gravity can bring these witches down.

Of course, the sexist tendency of our storytelling has required women to be tamed, despite the considerable benefits of their powers. Why must Darrin order Samantha to suppress her abilities on “Bewitched,” when she (and he, for that matter) could easily kiss all her household chores goodbye with the wiggle of a nose? I was so disappointed by Angela Lansbury giving up her magic mischief at the end of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” that I had always wished the downer finale had simply been replaced with David Tomlinson waking up next to Glynis Johns in “Mary Poppins,” rendering the whole yarn a “Newhart”-esque nightmare. And nightmares are practically guaranteed for anyone brave enough to experience Robert Eggers’s “The Witch,” a film that is finally being released a year after its director took home a major prize at Sundance. Over a half-hour of Mark Korven’s spine-tingling atonal score played prior to the advance screening I attended, solidifying how important it is to set a mood for audiences. It made me nostalgic for the orchestral overtures that once preceded Hollywood epics, and I pity anyone who has to sit though ear-deafening promos before entering the entrancing silence of “The Witch”’s opening titles.

The biggest obstacle I foresee this film having with modern viewers is the nature of its dialect, which is based in the language of New Englanders circa 1630. The multitudes of “thees” and “thys” combined with the accents (and one particular character’s baritone bellowing) caused much of the dialogue to be frustratingly incoherent upon first viewing. Yet that turned out to be less of a problem than one would assume, since it enabled the story to be conveyed on a purely visual level. Unlike the scene-stealing ladies previously mentioned, the titular witch in Eggers’s film is more of an insidious presence than a character, seeping through the skin like an icy gust of howling wind. She is a literal force of nature, rustling through the woods and feeding on her prey until they are fully consumed, much like her sister did in Burkittsville, Maryland. Though she is only observed in a handful of glimpses, she is there in every frame, taunting us with her inescapable malevolence. I could tell the film was working its magic when the people seated around me started gasping and murmuring, “Good lord,” to themselves with grim bewilderment, as if witnessing something unspeakable. The utter lack of humor in the film caused viewers to occasionally break into giggles—if only to temporarily release the tension—yet when “The Witch” dovetailed into full-on horror, no one was laughing.

Hugh Pollard, Cloris Leachman and Nicola Stapleton in Len Talan’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Courtesy of MGM.

Hugh Pollard, Cloris Leachman and Nicola Stapleton in Len Talan’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Courtesy of MGM.

This may be, in fact, the first film to reawaken in me the terror I felt as a kid when I stumbled upon Len Talan’s 1987 production of “Hansel and Gretel” on the Disney Channel. It’s a low-budget charmer chockfull of cheesy dialogue and performances (and, alas, songs), but there are some indelibly eerie sequences that spooked me throughout my childhood. Cloris Leachman’s portrayal of the witch is a stroke of genius in how funny it is, at least initially, luring the characters (and kiddies in the audience) into embracing her as a doddering old granny. When she suddenly turns evil, it’s all the more terrifying. I was reminded of this film during the scene in “The Witch” where young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) comes upon a house located deep in the forest. There’s no question that the boy is frightened, but he also feels drawn to it, moving toward his potential doom like a moth to a flame. Though this may seem like a direct quote from “Hansel and Gretel,” that fable’s moral can essentially be boiled down to, “don’t take candy from strangers.” There’s something more unsettling going on in “The Witch,” as evidenced by the big-chested woman who slinks out of the house before walking seductively towards Caleb (while Korven’s score pays blatant homage to Györgi Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra”). She’s taking advantage of the sexual curiosity the boy displayed when he glanced down the shirt of his older sister, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, an astonishing discovery), before averting his gaze with guilt-ridden angst.

Thomasin and Caleb aren’t just victims of a witch, but of an entire repressive lifestyle. The devout Christianity preached by their parents (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) has reduced life to a solemn chore bereft of any tangible warmth or affection. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke paints with natural light much like Emmanuel Lubezki does in “The Revenant,” utilizing the hues of overcast skies and flickering candles to accentuate the harsh reality of his characters’ circumstances. When the family’s crops fail and their baby boy suddenly vanishes, the conspicuous lack of trust between these people starts to take its toll, a la the “Twilight Zone” classic, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Voices are raised, accusations are made and blood is spilled without the witch having to lift a finger—let alone a broomstick. Deeming any aspect of the world beyond their understanding as satanic, the parents cling to their religion in a way that is almost carnal. There are times their vocal worshipping of Jesus sounds more like the recounting of an erotic fantasy. This is precisely what makes them an ideal target of vulnerability for encroaching forces of darkness.

When the end credits began to roll and the audience broke into enthusiastic applause, I remained still in my chair, my eyes locked on the screen and my mind in deep contemplation. The picture had left me feeling immensely troubled. I began to think of all the faith-based groups that could potentially see the film as a reflection of their own backwards ideology, branding sexuality and female identity as something to be feared. Thankfully, I stuck around for the post-screening Q&A with Eggers, which proved quite enlightening. I laughed loudly at his deadpan response to the news that Satanists have praised the film as a recruitment tool: “I’m just glad that anyone is enjoying the film.” Yet it was when Eggers admitted that he considered the film “feminist” that a lightbulb went off in my head, and everything I had just seen finally came into focus. “The Witch” is, in essence, a cautionary tale about Puritanism, not an endorsement of it. When I revisited Universal’s “Dracula” classics last year, I noticed that the vampire often seemed to be the only character onscreen with blood running through his veins. The same could be said here of the witch. She is a beacon of pleasure in a wilderness of pain, a fresh chocolate confection on a plate of stale leftovers. How can anyone weighed down by the misery of life resist her invitation to defy gravity?

“The Witch” flew into theaters Friday, February 19th.

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