I’m not a huge aficionado of horror. I’ve read it, written it, watched it… but all too often I find myself disappointed. I’m willing to allow that it’s probably because my take on ‘horrifying’ is different to most, but on the whole I find that horror as a genre falls all too easily into tired tropes and hackneyed stereotypes.
…and that would probably be the reason I very much enjoyed this film.
Without giving too much away: it’s a period piece set in Puritan New England. One one man (William) clashes with the religious elders of the village on the grounds that they’re just not sufficiently godly. He takes his family – wife Katherine, elder daughter Thomasin, elder son Caleb, twins Jonas and Mercy, baby Samuel – out into the forbidding wilderness to build a new, more Christian life.
There’s a lot to appreciate in the film. The writer/director Robert Eggers uses something approaching period dialect for his characters, and they – including the children – handle it well. The cinematography is excellent. It’s dark, brooding, and takes full advantage of the wild, threatening landscape.
Best of all, however, is the way in which Eggers engineers the destruction of the little family up there on the screen. Make no mistake: this film does pursue the classic (and heavily overused) American screen horror trope of the ‘normal family that encounters supernatural evil’ — but Eggers does not handle it like yet another wannabe horror maven directing yet another poorly disguised rehash of The Exorcist.
Eggers greatest success lies in using classic witch lore to build his evil threat. For most of the film, the Witch is unseen — but she is a a palpable threat from perhaps the first five minutes onward. Stealing babies, blighting crops, leading people astray in the woods, attacking livestock, consorting with devils: it’s a list of witchcraft straight out of the Malleus Maleficarum. What makes it so effective is the manner in which Eggers embeds this material within the all-encompassing religiosity of the family.
Imagine a life in which you, personally, were at the centre of an ongoing battle between God and Satan. A life where your loyalty, your very soul was part and parcel of a game played out across your entire existence. .Imagine that every action you take, every chance happening, every single moment of your day must be investigated and understood as either “godly” or “satanic”, with no middle ground. This last concept — no middle ground — is perhaps most important of all. Events which cannoot immediately be understood as coming from God, or from the will of the Evil One, must be examined, considered, reconsidered and reconstructed until some understanding is reached — else you may find yourself inadvertently doing the Devil’s work.
Before seeing this film, I had never really considered the stress of such a life. After seeing the movie, I can only wonder what kind of mind can sustain that kind of fanaticism — for even today, there are people who live by extremes of religion, whose lives are nothing more than artifacts of a tortuous, ongoing attempt to reconcile dogma with the world around.
Performances in the film are uniformly excellent, particularly from the younger performers. The story begins well, builds with slow, damning nastiness, and concludes in appropriate violence and horror. If there is a weakness to the movie, it comes from allowing us a glimpse of the Witch too early in the piece. She is confirmed as a genuine, real piece of nastiness (possibly mad, if not genuinely Satanic) near the beginning of the film, and as a result, some of the psychological underpinning of the film is eroded.
Much of the horror of the film is generated by the family tearing itself apart in the wake of small interventions by the Witch. If she had not been established early as a presence, it would be possible for the viewer to imagine that missing babies, blighted corn, dying livestock and empty traps were simply a run of bad luck on the frontier. The question of supernatural intervention would remain, and the possibility of purely psychological horror would be equally tantalizing. In such a case, the eventual appearance of the Witch towards the end, and the awful consequences of her intervention, would be a suitably cathartic and horrifying conclusion. However, since we’re shown that a real, material evil is afoot from so early in the film, this presents something of a missed opportunity.
But not much of one. If you enjoy horror, you should see this film. In particular, you should see the way that Eggers and his crew of performers build a sense of menace and create genuine emotional entanglement without resorting to the usual, tired and worn bag of horror-director tricks.
I may even watch this one again.