Four years before releasing the Folk Horror triumph, Midsommer (2019), directed by Ari Aster, A24 studios tried their hand at the sub-genre with The Witch. Directed by Robert Eggers and set in the 17th century New England, The Witch tells dark tale told under the grey skies of winter. Anna Taylor-Joy makes her feature film acting debut as a young woman named Thomasin dealing with the patriarchal oppression of the day and the hidden evils of the night.
Oppressive By Design
Folk Horror films typically does something by design, they transport the audience to a world that suspends belief in the modernity and resurrect belief in the supernatural. Folk horror weaves tales of hidden horrors one may find wandering off the beaten path in the wooded dark. It tells tales of the suffering that befalls those that question long-held religious dogma. Doing this well demands the second critical design aspect, an overwhelming feeling of oppression.
The never-ending weight of oppression brings authenticity to the belief in the unknown. Through the never ending burden of staying alive in an age devoid of science, medicine and industry, folk horror cements itself in the psyche of he audience through the oppression of its characters ceaseless grind.
Robert Eggers brilliantly brilliantly tells a much larger story by embracing the idea that the ceaseless grind reveals a hidden, but beaten, path holds both horrors and relief. He demonstrates that salvation may be found only by shattering the conventions of the day.
Loss and Banishment
The Witch tells the story of a man named William and his family. William finds himself banished from his Puritan community over a disagreements of faith. He moves his family to a small cottage at the edge of a dark forest. There, he and his wife Katherine give birth to a new son named Samuel. Through struggle and want, William his family seems to be making it until one day, Samuel disappears while playing with their daughter, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy).
A witch hiding in the woods kidnapped the unbaptized son, and in imagery that can only be described as sickening, grinds the baby into a magical salve that enables witches flight.
As time passes, distrust grows. Eventually, suspicions of witchery fall upon Thomasin. The distrust tears at them to the point that Thomasin can only save herself by destroying everything she has known and escaping to freedom that lies just outside of her view.
A Worthwhile Slog, for the Determined
Robert Eggers’ film requires a dedication to complete. As mentioned, the key to this tale lies in its ability to articulate the oppression that smothers Thomasin’s family at every corner. Likewise, the film drips in a thick pallet of the most muted grey imaginable. Through intent, Egger’s creates a depressing backdrop that challenges the viewers determination to complete the film in a single sitting. For those that rise to the challenge, Eggers awards the viewers that stand up to the task.
Egger’s ultimately and profoundly delivers a care package of socio-political bullet points, each with wrapped in a moral quandary. Anyone with an ounce of empathy wants something better for Thomasin, but at what cost? Egger’s portrays witchcraft as the original women’s liberation movement, but one that churns babies into a gore laden butter in order to float weightless for a few moments.
Eggers makes a strong case for Thomasin lashing out at her parents to achieve her self-realization, but her siblings must die in the cross-fire.
To close the film, Thomasin glows with a smile unattainable in her former life, but should her actualization of happiness be celebrated?
High Production Value
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots an extremely competent film. Along with the lighting teams, Blaschke exacerbates both the expanse and the depth of the wooded forest surrounding the events of the film. Every shot captures the crushing grey of the sky above. During interior scenes, he impressively manages to capture the action in the feeble glow of candlelight. Both the interior and exterior camera work exemplifies the overall feeling of despair, isolation and oppression.
Jarin Blaschke would recreate this atmosphere in the Robert Egger’s, A24 release, The Lighthouse (2019).
Egger’s casting of Anna Taylor-Joy proves to be one of the more impactful decisions with respect to the success of this film. Her appearance can only be described as completely engrossing. Anna Taylor-Joy possesses an incredible ability to project both incredible strength and delicate weakness simultaneously. She would later, leverage this to its fullest in the Netflix mini-series The Queens Gambit (2020), but in 2015 she had barely begun her career.
100% of the credit goes to Joy for the performance, but Eggers’ casting eye deserves credit for finding a perfect vessel for completing his tale.
On a final note, It should be noted that Eggers’ screenplay features a talking goat name Black Phillip. There exist so many ways for a film to absolutely implode on that plot device alone. Eggers confidently avoids all of them. You heard that right, The Witch has a talking goat, and it’s ok. It works.
Good, Profound and Just Ok
Using our critics eye, The Witch delivers a well crafted horror tale that ultimately amounts to more than the sum of its parts. For as mind-numbingly dark as most of photography looks, the backdrop provided by the production team could be described as disturbingly beautiful. As adequately mentioned before, Eggers provides a deep social commentary as the foundation for the film. Yet, as a whole the film feels a bit underwhelming at the conclusion in a way difficult to explain.
Despite the extreme appreciation for the quality of the film, The Witch simply felt like it required a lot more work to enjoy than a good horror film should. Admittedly, I failed at least once to complete the film in a single sitting. Possibly the only reason that I completed it this time was because of the A24 bender I had been working on at the time. Re-watchability, something we typically factor into reviews, feels negligible at best for this one.
Still, good folk horror seems to be in short supply. Those that favor the sub-genre will likely find something to enjoy about The Witch. Furthermore, the social commentary likely resonates, especially for those passionate about the issues that Eggers tackles. For everyone else, there’s freshly churned flying baby butter, so that’s a thing.
The Witch (2015) - Folk Horror Feminism - Malevolent Dark
Director: Robert Eggers
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33
- Legitimate Folk Horror
- Dark and brooding
- Anna Taylor-Joy
- A bit fry and long in the tooth
- Slow pacing
- Dreary and depressing