“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath” — so wrote Algernon Swinburne in “Hymn to Proserpine” (1866), and the faith-imbued world of the unfortunate family in The Witch is grey and pale indeed. The force they encounter is unequivocally evil, but one of the remarkable things about the movie is that even as we fear this force, we feel its seductive power as well. It is anything but grey.
The Witch is fine new entry in the annals of Satanic cinema. Its closest cousin is probably Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), a period piece in which the children of a rural village in England become demon-possessed. In its rhythms, though, it has more in common with The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now (both 1973) — horror films that are not constructed around a series of terrifying set pieces, but choose instead to keep their powder dry, building dread and preparing the way for their devastating conclusions. (Though The Witch has a major piece of nastiness early on, alerting us to the fact that all bets are off. Anything can happen here.)
Spoiler warning now for the rest of this entry. Don’t read any further if you’re planning on seeing the film.
Though The Witch does fit in with a few traditions in horror films, it is also unusual for being one of the very few out-and-out horror movies to have a witch as its threat. And writer/director Robert Eggers has gone Full Witch — pretty much every fairy tale horror associated with the figure is present and correct, from physical appearance on down. Horror movies do have a tradition of witchfinder movies (Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil), where it is the accusation of witchcraft that is the horror. More recently, the dire and more action-oriented Season of the Witch and The Last Witchhunter have tried to have it both ways (guess what — it doesn’t work), but the figure is still pretty rare in the serious horror movie. Granted, there are uncomfortable issues that arise (as Rachael Acks reminds us) when choosing to go this route rather than the Witchfinder General one, and I have to say I was surprised just how utterly committed The Witch was to this portrayal. With that noted, then, what The Witch does with its chosen subject is pretty remarkable.
I saw one headline that compared the movie to The Shining, and indeed there is a Kubrickian influence in the gorgeous, painterly compositions, fearful symmetries, unnerving score, and painstaking attention to detail. So yes — the film is remarkably beautiful, as is the use of language in the script. And this beauty, I think, is part and parcel of the terrible ecstasies the film has us explore and ultimately share.
First, let’s pause over the most famous depiction of religious ecstasy: Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. This rapture, where the religious meets the sexual, comes up at least three times over the course of the film. It is in the face of Caleb (Harven Scrimshaw), the eldest son of the family, in his final moments, as he feels himself ravished by Christ. It is what his mother Katherine describes having felt, once upon a time, and it devastates her that she will feel it no longer. And it is there again, at the end of the film, in the face of protagonist Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). She has lived through the horror of the loss of her entire family. She has had to kill her mother in self-defense. The God to whom she prayed her entire life has been no help. All that was promised by her faith was a life of hardship and perpetual self-abnegation. And so we can understand, when that whisper in the dark asks if she would like the taste of butter in her mouth and the sight of a pretty dress, that she turns from the grey world of the pale Galilean. In her moment of ecstasy, in the deep of the night, there is colour. There is the warm orange of the blaze of the witches’ Sabbath, and the red of the her mother’s blood on her face. This has been a journey of horror for her and and for us, one that began with the butchering of an infant.
And yet, it is hard to shake of a feeling of disturbing triumph in the final shot of the film. In wake of Caleb’s ecstasy, he dies. In the wake of Thomasina’s, she flies. And so do we.