06 March 2016

WiTchcraFt

by Leigh Lundin

So Tuesday, friends invited me to celebrate a birthday with dining and a movie. Our birthday girl selected a film applauded at Sundance, a ‘Christian horror’ flick that supposedly “terrified” Stephen King– she chose The Witch.

The Witch
Critics praised it with adjectives– thought-provoking, visually compelling, deeply unsettling, intelligent, meticulously researched, historically accurate, carefully crafted, detailed, brooding, numinous, magnificent, smart, artful, gut-wrenching, creepy, atmospheric, beautifully crafted– an immense atmosphere, a little gem.

And yet, friends and I literally struggled to stay awake.

Movie audiences often regard films more positively than reviewers, or rather they side with critics who give higher ratings, but are more reluctant to agree when professionals pan movies. Rotten Tomatoes calculated an 89% approval from 160 reviewers. It’s especially beloved by the Satanic Temple, which endorsed The Witch and hosted screenings. Meanwhile, only half of 22 000 audience members liked it.

Stirring the Pot

Is The Crucible still required reading in high school? We not only read Arthur Miller’s play, we studied the history of Salem witch trials. My girlfriend lived a short oxcart ride from Plimoth Plantation, where the story begins. She suggested a tour of Salem and the nearby cemetery with its slate headstones. I entered the movie theatre looking forward to the story and its history.

Puritans were singularly unpleasant people. The English could not abide them; the Puritans could barely tolerate themselves. They detested other brands of Christians. Once, they hanged two Quaker women– as inoffensive humans as ever one might encounter– passers-by in the wrong place at the wrong time. To take them in, the local Indians must have been saints.

The film commences in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. For context, the Salem witch trials wouldn’t come until much later, 1692.

Family Portrait

The Witch features surprisingly few Indians… zero, by my count. Instead, the film focuses on one family: husband William, wife Katherine, baby Samuel, Katzenjammer-like twins Mercy and Jonas, coming-of-age son Caleb, and beautiful, ethereal daughter Thomasin. These are the children all parents want.

Caleb follows his father, learning how to build, plant, hunt, and the work that makes a man. Sexual awakenings confuse him. He shares with his older sister a protectiveness toward the baby in the family.


 Witch language: Enochian.

The focus soon shifts to gentle Thomasin and the remainder of the story plays out through her eyes. She seems too delicate for hardscrabble pioneering, yet she works uncomplainingly.

The characters are portrayed well enough, although growing to like people only to see them destroyed is always difficult.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

Plimoth Plantation
Plimoth Plantation
What was wrong with the movie?

Our David Dean knows something about Christian horror as evidenced by his novel, The Thirteenth Child. That atmosphere builds, mystifies, intimidates and terrifies. In comparison, The Witch merely disappoints.

To writer-director Robert Eggers’ credit, he didn’t belabor the portrayal of witches, wisely choosing to understate. Unfortunately, his deft hand lacked in other ways. My overwhelming feeling was sadness for a likeable, struggling family unraveling through little fault of their own except, you know, they weren’t Puritan enough. Sadness and boredom… and I usually admire historical detail.

Eggers would have been well-served to study writings of New England horror by H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft especially turned environment into atmosphere, forged words into weapons, nay, gnashing teeth that rend a reader’s imagination and devour hope.

Cauldron of Crises

The movie’s far bigger problem is a lack of plot. The family leaves the religious colony to homestead on their own. They face calamities in feeding themselves as crops, livestock, and hunting fail, and later, crises of conscience. William represents Job in the New World. If something goes wrong, it must be God’s will.

This isn’t a plot, it’s a premise, a series of vignettes maybe caused by witches, maybe not, barely threaded on the same spool. Worse, it’s an audience waster for anyone other than film students.

In the hands of M. Night Shyamalan, the production would likely feature a darkly intricate plot, more mystery, less ambivalence. Everyone has to start somewhere and this is Robert Eggers’s first film. But time and money are precious, and whereas we ponder the harsh lives of the Puritans, I suspect future generations will wonder why The Witch received an 89% rating.

15 comments:

janice law said...

Sounds as if you'd have done better to stay home and read that real puritan creepy, Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown!

David Dean said...

Thanks for the mention here, Leigh. I've not seen this film and, after this, not likely to. Even the most sympathetic treatment of characters must be framed within some kind of dramatic tension. Without it, we (the audience) don't know why we were invited to watch. Certainly that place and period in history supplies a lot of material. How frightening and paranoia-producing it must have been to be amongst a tiny band of Europeans clinging to the very edge of a great, unknown continent filled with both real, and imaginary, terrors. The nights must have gone on forever.

Leigh Lundin said...

Good point, Janice, and thanks. Despite my parents loading us kids with classic literature, I don’t think I’ve read that story and I would be well advised to correct that oversight.

David, as you know, I enjoyed The 13th Child. Last night I was talking with friends that life in the Americas 400 years ago must have been like colonizing Mars today, a grand but gritty and often frightening adventure.

Vicki Kennedy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leigh Lundin said...

Vicki, right you are. It's very disappointing. It left me feeling a much better story could have been told.

Anonymous said...

I do feel compelled to point out that while the people colonizing America 400 yeas ago might have FELT like people colonizing Mars today, there's a significant difference: there were people and civilizations already HERE when the Puritans arrived. In fact, if not for those people, the early colonies would have died out. Just as one simple thing, the local inhabitants gave them the seeds of an important food plant that was adapted to grow here -- corn -- and taught them how to raise it so they didn't starve. I only point this out because those of us who still live here are very sensitive to the on-going mythos that America was literally a barren wasteland occupied by no one when the Europeans arrived -- e.g., like Mars is now. That's simply not so. We see this as important because the false narrative not only facilitated the colonialist programs of Manifest Destiny, it impacts the power relationship between the dominant culture and our people to this day.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, I was discussing the same thing this morning after mentioning in the article that the Indians must have been saints to put up with the Pilgrims. As the article mentions, the film didn’t bother to include Indians, which is pretty damn hard to accomplish.

I have ancestors on both sides of the divide, Algonquin and English dating back (and before) to Jamestown and Plymouth. My mother took pains to keep that in front of us. But you’re right that I was imagining the excitement from a European PoV.

I reserve my greatest disgust for the genocidal Lord De La Warr. Who needed witches when real evil walked the land?

Eve Fisher said...

I agree - stay home and read Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or watch "The Crucible" with Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder - we watched that a couple of weeks ago, and I'd forgotten how good it is. And I also agree, the Puritans were really unpleasant people: they stripped away all pleasures from life, except drinking - there was a lot of heavy drinking, openly done. There was sex, but it was very privately done. "Captain Kemble of Boston was in 1656 set for two hours in the public stocks for his "lewd and unseemly behavior," which, consisted in his kissing his wife "publicquely" on the Sabbath Day, upon the doorstep of his house, when he had just returned from a voyage and absence of three years." And then they wondered why there were problems with misbehavior... http://www.reformedreader.org/puritans/sabbath.puritan.newengland/sabbath.puritan.newengland.chapter17.htm

A Broad Abroad said...

Can't say 'Christian horror' would be high on my list of must-see films, so thanks for the warning. Your wicked, clever (or wickedly clever) heading says it perfectly.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, I didn’t know about the drinking but puritanical tendrils lasted in that part of New England through at least the 1970s when Boston finally allowed nudity in films. Arguably, puritanism infects the religious politics of our nation today.

ABA, I couldn’t resist that title, which summed up my feelings about the show. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are usually cited as examples of Christian horror, not a genre I go for. Real life crime has enough horror for many of us.

Jeff Baker said...

Leigh, it sounds like you had the same reaction to this a friend of mine had to "The Blair Witch Project!" And I agree about your title! AND about reading Young Goodman Brown instead. Favorite chilling line: "So Goody Cloyse knows her old friend!" And follow that by reading some M.R. James!

Leigh Lundin said...

Jeff, I'm taking the advice to heart. I'll check out M.R. James. When I was a kid, besides Poe and Lovecraft, I also liked Oliver Onions.

Robert Lopresti said...

I don't like horror so I won't be seeing this. Your piece reminded me of a song by Bob Franke, who lives, or used to, in Peabody, Mass, on land that once belonged to a man who was crushed to death under rocks for being a witch.

Franke, who is an Episcopalian if I recall correctly, said "This is a song about something REALLY scary. Not witches. Seventeenth century Christians."

Here is the song "I But A Little Girl."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJcU8bHDJHA

Leigh Lundin said...

Thanks, Rob. Franke’s distinctive voices reminds me of someone I can’t quite place.

Good quote, Rob, one worthy of the Thought for the Day.

One father/husband in Salem was crushed to death beneath stones because he refused to give up his wife and daughter. Evil, pure evil.

Eve Fisher said...

Now THAT's a song for the ages. Thanks for posting that, Rob.