February 19, 2016

A Salem Witch's Review of The VVitch

Local historians, business owners, and witches were invited to a special early screening of The Witch at Cinema Salem followed by a panel with the director, Robert Eggers, and the star of the movie Anya Taylor-Joy along with a few of our local Salem experts.

(Left to right: Danvers town archivist Richard Trask, author of The Lace Reader Brunonia Barry, Anya Taylor Joy who plays Thomasin, Director Robert Eggers, and local historian, professor, and author Tad Baker)

I loved this movie too much to give the ending away, but in order to write this review I'll have to reveal one spoiler that happens within the first few minutes. From the trailers it seems like the baby going missing is the pivotal moment of the entire film and in a way it is. But the baby is dead. Thankfully this film spares the gore, but we know it's dead right from the beginning and there is no doubt about it. We know because we watched a naked old witch take a knife to his innocent body, grind him up in a mortar and pestle and bathe in his blood.

The first thing that struck me about this movie was the sound - the musical score sounds like broken string instruments made from dead trees - and the moments of abrupt silence. From the first scenes where we witness the family (who's surname we never learn) being banished from the unnamed colony, rolling away in a cart and settling an isolated plot in a far off place, the strange music sets a chaotic and unnerving pace. Along with the incessant creepy puritanical praying it's enough to help begin to immerse you into their perspective, particularly the teenage daughter Thomasin played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who it ends up is the protagonist..

Set in the 1630s, director Robert Eggers said he imagined their new settlement was located somewhere in southern New Hampshire and repeatedly discussed how important historical accuracy was while filming. Winning the award for directing in a US dramatic role at Sundance, his attention to detail payed off and A24 picked up his film for national distribution immediately afterwards. Taylor-Joy described how funny it was for her to try on her meticulously accurate clothing for the first time saying "It would take like four people to dress someone!", Eggers described building period houses on the set and how he knew historians would criticize the way the wood was cut when it showed up so he had it all done over by hand, the language that the actors use is so authentic it will be difficult for some people to understand, even the title of the film uses the more historically accurate version of the letter w - which was often printed as VV when in upper case in titles. At a screening full of experts on colonial New England and the Puritans there was barely a complaint, but you could see Eggers really cared about the accuracy in the way he jokingly pointed out a couple flaws to us.

The one thing that is not historically accurate is the film's depiction of witchcraft, well in a way. It's not accurate to what witchcraft is today and what it's based on, and that was the biggest relief of the night. See, it's historically accurate to the idea of what a witch would be in the minds of these people during this time period. It's a great approach and something many films about new England and witches never even attempt. Where many writers and directors make the mistake of conflating the ideas of modern pagan based witchcraft with devil worship and Christian superstition from the middle ages and early modern era, this movie never crosses that line and masterfully creates the purely fictional and fantastical version of witchcraft that, to the Puritans was very very real. It's clear Eggers researched actual witch trials and based his concept for on the accuser's strange testimonies and confessions extracted through torture. Although, when asked he stated that he didn't read too much of the Salem witch trials but more about the many European witch crazes.

To religious fanatics like this the edge of the woods was a portal into evil, unbaptized babies go to hell, the devil was an actual entity, and when he shows up he tries to force you to sign his book. To fanatics like this a witch covers herself in flying ointment made with the baby's blood, mounts her riding pole, and flies into the full moon to the black sabbath. This is not a goofy bumbling hag, this is the first ACTUAL scary witch in a film in decades. To the local witches in the theater that was the biggest relief of the night, nothing in the film was offensive towards modern witches because this was very clearly based on the twisted fears of the time.

Most importantly, immersing us in the desolate cold landscape helps us to understand the most terrifying belief of all - when bad things happen there is always someone to blame.

Their hard life is earned and even the kids, especially Thomasin, toil on the farm. Of course when the baby goes missing under her care, mistrust in her is the first reaction of the rest of the family. They blame themselves and each other as the film escalates slowly at first - the corn being blighted, animals and the young children acting strangely, an egg being stillborn - and for a brief time we almost forget that the witch is real. Maybe their fear and paranoia will destroy them on its own like it did in 1692 in Salem. Maybe there wasn't a witch, maybe the accusations against Thomasin are true, maybe it's the father or the mother that is evil.

But that is short-lived, and the witch appears again to lure the adolescent son as a beautiful temptress, emerging from her hobbit hole leg first.

As things get weirder and weirder the pace set at the beginning - of tension and release in music, quick scene changes, and manic fluctuations in character demeanor - stays pretty constant. So the dramatic effect of a hard rain is enough to set your nerves on edge and when the characters really do start freaking out we are shocked but not surprised. We've been brought into their tiny world and know what they fear is real.

The real star of the movie, Charlie the goat plays Black Phillip (and he has a twitter).