21 February 2016

Review: The VVitch

Last October, my girlfriend and I decided to adopt a second cat. Searching on the internet, we stumbled on a litter of kittens in need of a good home. Among the furry faces on our screen, we immediately fell in love with the tiny bewildered mug of the only black kitten. Upon contacting the current owner of the cats, we were surprised to find out he was available for 25% cheaper than the others. Asking why, we were told that black cats don’t sell as well because of... superstition. Yes, indeed, in our modern society, people still believe that black cats are bad luck. Clearly, old habits die hard. Ironically, if black cats have such a reputation thanks to their centuries-old implied connection to witches, witches, on the other hand, do not necessarily actively haunt our fears and anxieties to such a scale anymore. It would be remiss, however, to believe that tales of witches are the stuff of the past, or as they are more popularly remembered, from the Salem trials. (By the way, if New France was spared the outright witch panic that gripped Salem, the fear of such hags was not altogether unheard of. And let’s not forget a direct link between Québec and Salem: William Phips' attempt to capture the French colony had, after all, shortly preceded his appointment as the governor of Massachusetts... during which his wife would be accused of witchcraft.) As author Owen Davies’ book America Bewitched demonstrates, witches and witchcraft have always been present in one form or another throughout American history. Furthermore, how can we forget the laughable controversy surrounding U.S. politician Christine O’Donnell who, in 2010, felt compelled to reassure her potential electors that she was not a witch? But for your average movie-goer, witches take a backseat, way back that is, to the current parade of cinema monsters: zombies, vampires and werewolves. True, witches have made quite a few appearances in Hollywood’s line of horror films, but ask anyone what is the first witchcraft movie or TV show that springs to mind and chances are he or she will mention the benign TV series Charmed or the Blair Witch Project with its disappointing ending devoid of any real payoff. So, in my opinion at least, it is quite a challenge to create a movie about a witch which (see what I did there?) really evokes how scary witches are supposed to be.

Move over Sabrina, this is the witch we’ve been waiting for.

The VVitch is reminiscent of Renaissance woodcuts
such as this one by Hans Baldung. 
Directed by Robert Eggers, The VVitch takes place in the early 17th century in the vicinity of an unnamed English colony (Jamestown? Plymouth? Take your pick). The story centers on a puritan family that decides to leave their town to strike out on their own in the wilderness. Headed by patriarch William, they settle in, believing they are following God’s will. Soon, however, something seems amiss... the cumulating crop failures, hunting accidents, and strange goings-on lead them to believe they are cursed by God... or is it something more sinister? Indeed, as each family member starts believing a witch is the cause of their woes, accusations run amok...

Beyond this simple story line, the movie is much more complex. Though never explicitly said, the story can be at once a metaphor for despair and the obsessive quest for reason behind cumulated failure and how family can tear apart in such a situation. Only this time, the scapegoat is, quite literally, real. Other reviewers have touched upon different themes as well, such as “the perils of heavily religious upbringing”. But what is probably the most important theme is the dichotomy between the extremes of total constraint and submission versus complete mental liberation at the cusp of womanhood (as illustrated per the actions of Thomasin, the teenaged main character who just can’t seem to get a break from her parents and obnoxious younger siblings).

What makes this movie a true gem however is the care invested in establishing the historical setting. I can never hope to do a better historical commentary on this movie than Alexandra Montgomery’s review, Discovering Witches, over at the Junto. But, I will repeat what is being said all over the media: the main strength of this film is the director’s obsession with historical accuracy. The viewer’s anxiety and dread, as well as the efficacy of the witch as a terrifying antagonist, all depend on this fact and its resulting atmosphere oozing with superstition, fear, loneliness, and the unknown.

For your average horror fan, this movie is surprisingly devoid of gore. However, the movie makes apt use of creepiness (you will never look at rabbits the same way again...). Using the woods near Mattawa, Ontario, as a stand-in for New England’s primeval forests, a sense of isolation really sets in, giving way to sordid and terrifying evocations of the mind. As I have just mentioned, this skillful interpretation was not so much imagined by director Eggers so much as resurrected from period sources and artwork. As he is quoted saying regarding his obsession with realism:
“So much has been made of the authenticity of this, and of course that’s important to me, but authenticity for the sake of authenticity doesn’t really matter [...]. To understand why the witch archetype was important and interesting and powerful—and how was I going to make that scary and alive again—we had to go back in time to the early modern period when the witch was a reality. And the only way I was going to do that, I decided, was by having it be insanely accurate.”
The witch in this case is truly terrifying. Far behind us are the portrayals of the sexy witch (The Craft) or the goofy witch (Hocus Pocus)—this is the witch that was hunted by inquisitors and haunted the nightmares of Goya. The old crone, the hag, the witch, call her what you will, she is not the stuff of fairytales but of true horror. Yet, what makes her so frightening is not the handful of glimpses we get, but rather her heavy, invisible presence. Eggers weaves his story and visuals in such a way that you are constantly wondering who—or what—is being manipulated by the witch, instilling the same sense of paranoia that must have been sensed by peasants at the very worst of the witch hunts. He has not only effectively distilled the essence of the witch panic of Europe and Salem, but did so on a personal scale and gave the viewer a front row seat.

All in all, this movie will put a spell on you.

PS for those who have seen the movie: #babybutter

PPS Update: Check out Casey Schmitt's take on the movie as well:  https://earlyamericanists.com/2016/02/22/how-we-love-to-hate-puritan-new-england/

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