The Witch is in cinemas now.
Writing about Robert Eggers’s The Witch has left me in a state of ambivalence-induced, continuous procrastination. There’s a part of me that wishes I didn’t feel like it was such a chore, for on a technical level, there’s plenty to admire about the film. Eggers has applied a mercurial attention to detail here, creating a film that, despite its many trappings, rarely slips up in maintaining its delicate illusion. The sounds, whether a metallic hiss of blood into a bucket, or scurrying conversation in the foreground, is immersive. The period dialogue, which I feared was going to be performed with about as much naturalism as the middle ages-set musical I performed in with my grade six class, is spoken with deft skill and understanding by the whole cast, right down to its youngest members. The performances, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy’s lead turn as Thomasin, are intriguing, and speak larger volumes than what Eggers has written on the page. But despite the mountains of perfectly researched period detail and the skill of the performers, as a horror film that critics have been quick to heap praise on as “rattling” and “bone chilling”, is The Witch successful? No, it’s not. Unless you find teenage girls horrifying, that is.
It doesn’t take a probing mind to see modern horror’s obsession with the mysterious evils of female sexuality and psychology. Whether in It Follows or The Babadook, everything from periods to sex to motherhood has been a source of threat, and most commonly death, to varying degrees of success.
In The Witch, it’s the (still) mostly relegated to hushed tones matter of puberty which has seen well-trodden tropes turned up to 11, the body count piling up and metaphors stretched to breaking point.
Eggers sets his film in 1600s New England, an era where the Salem Witch Trials were barely around the corner, and religious hysteria is running high. In the first scene, 15-year-old Thomas and her Puritan family are being tried for “prideful conceit”, kneeling on a court room floor in front of a judge. By the next scene, they’ve been banished from their large community, the gates closed behind them as they head for the woods, a place that any moviegoer knows means doom.
And doom there is, as an unknown presence looms (spoiler: it’s a witch, but of the naked and alluring kind instead of the crooked nose and hat of the more PG variety) and the family slowly starts to go mad. There’s death, possession, and creeping sexual curiosity as the woods enriches, terror drawing closer to the family.
It’s no secret that The Witch, both in physical form and psychological presence, is a barely-veiled metaphor for puberty, an inevitable event that’s rendered mysterious and somewhat threatening by society. Eggers’s references to this are blunt and obvious, one doesn’t require a probing mind to discover them. About halfway through the film, by which time young boys have been seduced by women and creepy twins have started to talk to the family’s goat Black Phillip, the previously passive Thomasin starts to have an awakening of her own. In the makeshift stable, she goes to milk a cow. Practiced, she positions the bucket without reservation, the action like any other. But the string score races in from the background, wailing and taunting, prompting the audience to pay attention to what’s about to happen. Instead of pure, white milk, into the bucket sprays bright red blood. She leaps away, kicking the bucket over to try and desperately hide it, while her siblings watch on in horror.
The bone-chilling moments of horror that feverent lovers of Eggers’s film have described are ones like this, where periods, breasts, and female sexuality are treated with the type of fetishistic terror of many a classic horror film. The 1970s had Carrie White going on a hysterical killing spree after having her first period, and last year’s It Follows gave its protagonist a sexually transmitted disease that manifested itself in deadly psychotic episodes. How Eggers intends to scare the audience here is no different. Terror is in what unpredictable thing the female body will do next, an at best basic exploration of sexual maturation. Blame gets shifted around a lot, but ultimately is lobbed at the previously innocent Thomasin, who watches on with wide, innocent eyes, terrified of the unknown associated with growing up, desperately clinging onto her childhood. To Eggers, puberty is the unknown, a time of sudden change that morphs a woman from child to object of desire instantaneously, flung into a different world without knowing what to do.
One wonders what the film might have looked like through the lens of Jennifer Kent, the mind behind 2014’s genuinely chilling The Babadook. In that film, Kent was able to manifest motherly anxiety without fetishisation, making her film into a smart exploration of learning to cope grief and addiction without scenes that lay that message in plain sight. Female sexuality was not demonised or mysterious, it was treated with openness, naturalism, and wasn’t a source of destruction. But what wasn’t said, whether through rattling scores and the corruption of innocence, was where the true terror began. As The Witch’s final scenes play out, where deviousness oscillates from evil incarnate to liberation, one wishes that Eggers had been a bit more like Kent and left something lurking in the woods too.