For his feature film debut, Robert Eggers managed to clinch Best Director for U.S. Narrative Competition in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. This impressive result is apparently due to the rather paradoxical nature of The Witch, as it opposes other mainstream horror movies that congregate an array of jump scares and ghouls powered by CGI and special effects. In fact, the absence of Annabelle dolls and eerie-looking clowns is what made it an even more remarkable film of the genre.
The Witch anchors on the myth of witches and is set in 17th century New England, when Puritan ideals thrived in society and the clergy maintained law and order. In a fashion that reminded me of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the film centres on a family of seven, alienated and physically banished by the rest of the community and moved to an area nearing the woods to lead their own lives in seclusion. Their extreme devotion in religious faith and the Lord began to waver when undesirable things started to unfold – bad harvests, a missing baby, and another son who came back from the woods one day, appearing possessed and highly distressed. This whirlwind of unfortunate events left William and Katherine (wait a minute… I just realised. Not the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge LOL) disillusioned with the disturbing suspicion that one of their children might have rubbed shoulders with Lucifer himself.
The witch – so who exactly is she (or he)? Quite naturally, the eldest daughter of the family, Thomasin, was pinpointed to be the most probable of the absurdity associated with witchcraft and Satanism. Along with the film title being seen as a giveaway to solve the puzzle of who the real “witch” was, Eggers intentionally slotted other teasers into a few scenes to misguide the viewers into thinking that Thomasin was really the witch who cursed her entire family. This mystery was able to keep me at the edge of my seat throughout the span of the filmic event – at different stages of the narrative I actually suspected different members of the family to be the mastermind behind those curses – but the truth is, there was no actual witch.
If I were to read the film closely enough like a prose, Eggers’ concepts of evil and witchcraft were derived from how Puritan societies viewed women then – they were deemed lower in status, and would often be maligned for participating in hideous activities such as black magic. Thomasin’s family could be seen as a microcosm of a conservative patriarchy where sons were preferred to daughters and how girls were treated with the least respect (specifically in the scene where William pushed Thomasin to the ground and termed her a “bitch”). Thomasin’s anger could arguably be fuelled by the accusations from her own parents which eventually led to her falling prey to the devil’s seduction to join the cult of seemingly bereaved women deemed as, of course, witches.
It is understandable why girls like Thomasin would be attracted to the malicious idea of joining the primitive community of witches though – because it was dishonourable to be labelled as witches and be associated to evilness, hence finding solace within the woods and forming a communion with other isolated females definitely seemed like an empowering option. I detect, with pleasure, the slight notion of feminism in the film as well – Thomasin was emblematic of deviance and strength, as she literally stabbed her berserk mother to death (justified by self-defense) and went to join the cult of witches in order to derive a new sense of self. The final scene symbolised how she was able to transcend above as she found comfort and empowerment in her new skin.
What differentiates The Witch from other horror films is not only the eradication of abrupt frights to induce goosebumps. The employment of piercing music that rise in a perturbing crescendo, the unusual imagery of witches (away from the mainstream ones with long black cloaks and broomsticks), along with the overarching dilemma between assimilation and deviance were highlights that made the film a fascinating, creative twist to the horror genre.