The VVitch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Producer: Rodrigo Teixeira, Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, and Jay Van Hoy
by Jon Cvack
It was after seeing It Follows ('15) that I knew I was witnessing the birth of a new subgenre. Not since the 90s - with films like Scream ('96) and A New Nightmare ('94) - has horror take such a fascinating turn. Like any movement, it’s not about a single person enlightening dozens of others, so much as a broad movement that a handful of filmmakers discover independently.
After the torture-porn died down there has been an interesting moving into home-invasion films (The Strangers ('08), The Purge ('13), You’re Next ('11), etc.), and a brief though voluminous period of found footage films (The Sacrament ('13) and Creep ('14) being two great ones amongst countless others). Throughout the last six months I’ve been seeing more single location horror (and independent) films, and yet with the exception of The Purge and Sharknado ('13), nothing has really caught on in terms of a new popular series per the likes of its predecessors Saw ('04), Scream, Halloween ('78), Texas Chainsaw ('74), and so on.
Much of it is attributed to television, where the confines of an average ninety minute running time have been lifted, allowing at least a dozen episodes to provide just any many scares. I’ve tried "American Horror Story" and a few others, and while I’m sure if I grew up with them I’d probably be interested, I just can’t get into any of the series, as the dependence of consistent scares demands they insert so much into the episodes that the narrative grows redundant as a result.
It seems natural that in a period where cinema is struggling for mass audiences and much of what it accomplished has now graduated over to television, that there'd be a niche for the cinephiles who remained; interested in high craft films with traditional formats. Cinema will always be around, but many of the tropes and limitations of an under two hour running time are starting to run dry. Blockbusters have destroyed the planet Earth more times than I can remember over the last twenty years and I’m not sure how much better it could look, other than audiences being integrated into the scene through virtual reality and again breaking away from cinema.
In terms of horror, I was often left wondering where the narrative could go, as what Torture Porn accomplished was taking gore and blood to the utter brink of possibility (and an general audience's ability to consume it). Found footage films relied on lo-fi and low cost equipment, but now our phones can produce decent images, making anything that’s shot “found footage” to look relatively crisp and produced by comparison to only a decade ago. Old genres and films return with sequels or remakes, but rarely do these work, let alone kick off an entire genre.
Horror has always been considered outside of Serious Cinema’s purview. As it often goes with great works of art, many of horror’s greatest pictures are now being hailed as works of genius. A 4k Night of the Living Dead ('68) print played at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and it was recently released on Criterion. One direction horror films had rarely strayed was into the hands of “Arthouse” or “Award Winning” filmmakers* (see below), and it was It Follows that made me realize the vast possibilities of merging high craft with exhausted tropes. Rather than simply subverting conventions per the likes of Wes Craven or Kevin Williams, David Robert Mitchell returned to the original tropes and created some of the most cinematic horror sequences I’ve ever seen, combining great ideas, photography, music, and sound design with perfection.
I was bummed I missed The Witch in theaters, wanting to go, and for a range of reasons, ws never able to make it. I figure I had about six months to Scary Movie Month 2017 (which I’m currently in) and this was the film to kick it off. Sure enough, after spending a great birthday driving out to the Palms Desert for the night, playing scary stories and podcasts and then playing the film the night I got back.
I had watched and read nothing about this film, having no clue what it was about other than involving Salem era witches. It opens with William (Ralph Ineson) as the father of a Puritan family, speaking what for at least ten minutes sounded like a foreign language, but was actually Old English mixed with a regional Yorkshire dialect and immediately I understood why the film was unique. Combined with the natural light photography and simple wardrobe and set design, it wasn’t about applying cheesy English accents and revealing wardrobe to the period, so much as attempting to tell a story with as much realism as possible; providing a film that was authentic as Dardennes or Rossellini.
William and his wife Katherine have just had their fifth son Samuel, of what was previously four children, including Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), twins Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), and a third son Jonas (Lucas Dawson). The family had left their community in order to forge a life of their own, facing a gloomy forest and an ailing farm, where their corn has succumbed to bacteria, leaving them with little to eat while forced to go on long hunting expeditions.
One day while watching Samuel, as Thomasin begins hearing sounds in the wood and Samuel then disappears. So begins one of the most terrifying scenes of the film as we get the first taste of what lurks in the woods, watching through muddied images as The Witch who grinds the baby to a pulp in order to create a flying potion. The most exciting part of this Arthouse Horror movement is its embracing of sound design, understanding the power of experimental audio and surround sound and how it creates atmosphere, thus far epitomized by It Follows.
Katherine grows suspicious of Thomison, blaming her for Samuel’s disappearance, progressing further into paranoia as additional members of the family begin to disappear and more signs point to their eldest daughter; particularly by the twins who, while I’m not certain, look like they had their faces distorted ever so slightly, and if not, is a pretty great idea if a character is never shown up close. After the family talisman of a silver cup goes missing and Katherine again points the finger at Thomison, William finally agrees to disown her under the justification that she’s now old enough to be on her own. Not wanting to leave his sister to die, Caleb follows her, soon getting separated and seduced in the woods by the witch taking the form of a beautiful woman. Having watched It Came at Night shortly after, I was left comparing Caleb to Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from that film, who was deep into puberty and incredibly horny, leading to his eventual downfall. Given the similarities between the films, it’s interesting that the two director’s found interest in exploring such similar characters.
Caleb returns the next day with an unknown illness, later having a seizure where Harvey Scrimshaw provides an absolutely incredible performance from one of the better scenes of the film. Slowly each member of the family dies at the hand of the witch, until the chilling climax closes it out. My friend said while he loved it he’s not sure if he’ll ever watch it again. I understand the point, as this film is so dark and somber, that similar to It Came at Night ('17), I can’t imagine when I’d choose to watch this film over a“fun” horror film that provides equal amounts of scares.
It points to the limits of Art House horror, and those who choose to approach the content with a more serious and high minded view. It’s easy for a fun (i.e., House of 10,000 Corpses ('03)), campy (i.e, Sleepaway Camp ('83)), or badass horror (i.e., The Thing ('82)) film to end on a cynical note, if not a completely bleak ending, as it seems much more geared toward allowing the fright to linger long after the film has concluded (if not to also leave room for sequels). I could see The Witch having a sequel, focusing on a different set of people in an equally remote area or town, but this film in particular left me feeling hopeless. It all feels and looks so real that aside from the gorgeous characters, their genuine responses allow for little excitement or enjoyment; they are despondent and death is inevitable. I’d have to be in a pretty twisted state of mind to elect to revisit such a dark movie; though if it was playing in theaters I’d definitely check it out, as it’s also one of the prettier indie horror films I’ve ever seen.
*It’s really hard for me to describe what separates theses directors without seeming to insult or belittle one side over another. Arthouse at least seems to sum it up, given its wide range of interpretations.
BELOW: Great scene, great accents
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