There’s that phrase “the past is a foreign country,” that’s been taken to mean all sorts of things, agreed with and disagreed with back and forth. I guess a lot of it comes down to what extent you think foreign countries do things differently than your own, as the original quote goes on say. Do you think other countries differ from yours in fundamental ways, or more superficial ones? What about the past?
I think perhaps the most powerful sense of creeping captivated unease engendered by The VVitch: A New England Folktale, is the sense that these 17th-century settlers do things so differently than we do, but are also us. This nearly 400 years past Calvinist family are a pack of weirdos by my modern standards, but they’re just people out there living their lives, out there saying “thee” and “hither” but real as hell. And incidentally, hell is real too? Because there’s a real ass witch living in the woods, as we are shown before we’re even out of act one, as if the movie wants to go ahead and answer your first question up front so that it can delve into different ones.
That’s the mode I think the horror in The Witch takes, this uncanny duality of the conceptual and the real, the past and the present. It’s uncanny like time travel, uncanny like the old school sense of liminal, of being in two places at once, Nabokov’s “shimmering go-between” of literature. I’ve been reading and it seems a lot of viewers, particularly women, like to interpret this movie as a feminist allegory, but I don’t feel it’s that direct or simple at all, and honestly find it WAY more interesting as a complicated thing, as something that can exist in that foggy valley between an Angela Carter-esque progressive interpretation of a folktale, and a deeply period-appropriate rendering of a composite cautionary tale built out of years of Robert Eggers’s research, large amounts of the dialogue pulled verbatim from diaries and letters and court documents of the time. I think the reason this movie can feel so uncannily real-unreal is that Eggers approached this family on their own terms. So the evil here is draconian patriarchal Puritan strictures that were very real indeed, and it’s also that there’s a naked woman in the woods who does very much murder children for the Devil. I think they’re both there because a young woman like Thomasin in the near-far past believed both. Knew enough to decry her father for his hypocrisy, but also doesn’t know how to write her own name.
The horror movie this reminded me of most is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now from 1973. The Witch and Don’t Look Now are both my kind of horror: creepy and atmospheric and more interested in formal aspects of filmmaking and Topics than jump scares or gore. And both movies are about the occult as a source of fear as well as intrigue, and how people in strained situations and strange environments might be more susceptible to its pull. There are also dead children and grieving parents in both, and little Samuel is snatched away by a figure in a red cloak—homage! The Witch also made me think of last year’s First Reformed from Paul Schrader, another movie concerned with religious asceticism shot with this direct, head-on sort of framing. Listen it works well.
Alright, now we talk Black Phillip and also spoilers. The first scene of Black Phillip bounding around the grey yard while the twins sing him songs….that was the most preternatural fucking creature I have ever seen. And like, that wasn’t CGI, was it? That was a real goat? Because this is what I’m talking about!! The spookiest parts of this movie are the things that feel super real!! Anyway I fully understand why Black Phillip took off the way he did among the online film fans, due to the one-two punch of very eerie goat dance + the most quotable scene in the movie. Which, if you’ve seen it, you know I would end up waiting for that scene for the entire runtime (thankfully a cleanly cut hour thirty). But it did not disappoint, not least because, despite seeing “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” everywhere, I had no idea that Black Phillip transforms into a shadowed man dressed all in black with a hat and spurs like some sort of sexy highwayman? Thought this was really well done actually, because there’s no way to show a goat talking that’s not a bit hokey, and Eggers wisely doesn’t dwell on the transformation either—save a hoof clipping into a heeled boot just beyond the table, mostly staying on Anya Taylor-Joy’s fascinating wide-eyed face as she contemplates what she wants and what she’s willing to do.