A while back, I went with some friends to watch “The Witch.” Previously we’d seen two other horror films – “Annabelle” and “Crimson Peak” — both of which disappointed in various, differing ways. I figured with “The Witch,” we’d finally found a good solid horror film to talk about in days to come.
I was first turned on to the film by the trailer. It laid out the spooky premise well – the mysterious disappearance of a baby with a Puritanical evil-woods backdrop. Next, I read an article on one of the many film blogs I follow praising “The Witch.” Even better, I thought. Let’s do this.
While there are some things it does right, for the most part “The Witch” is a collection of failings. It, like so many before it, can’t quite decide what kind of film it wants to be. As with any storyline, there are various ways it can branch off, each as good as the last. However, a storyline fails when its creators try to have it all rather than picking one branch and following it to the end.
Like the trailer, “The Witch” started off well, if a bit long. It takes its time to set up the hyper-religious settler family that has cut its ties with the nearest outpost of civilization, and their new surroundings right on the brink of an ominous wood. The soundtrack jumps around with voices and eerie screechy music that feels a bit heavy-handed at times, but is forgivable while the scene is set.
The first sign that things are not well is when eldest daughter Thomassin is playing with her infant brother Samuel in front of the cottage. As she removes her hands from her eyes for a third time in a game of Peek-a-boo, the baby has disappeared, and only a slightly swaying bush on the edge of the woods gives any indication as to where he’s gone.
The set-up is good, and it continues well in showing the characters – the religious, strict-yet-loving father William, the severe mother Catherine, the boyishly innocent eldest son Caleb and the wide-eyed innocent-yet-eyes-beginning-to-open Thomassin. The only ones who don’t get (or need) much of an introduction are the 8-year-old twins, Mercy and Jonnis. Twins are just creepy, yo. We watch the family members cope with the loss of baby Sam in their different ways while we learn that the corn harvest has mostly failed and the family is on the brink of starvation. Essentially, they are ripe for desperation, temptation and corruption.
Yet that never really comes in the right way, and that is one of the many failings of the film. Some films choose to be psychological, with the viewer left to decide how real the characters’ manifestations are in the real world– is there really a demon or is it just the delusions of a madman? Others choose straight-up supernatural. Yeah, there’s a devil nearby and he’s throwing people into walls.
“The Witch” teeters along the potentially-psychological boundary at first, before dumping itself headlong into the supernatural category. Baby Sam’s sudden disappearance is strange but not necessarily impossible. The incredibly disturbing scene in which the witch takes a knife to the baby for some sort of sacrifice, while horrifying, could be the work of a crazed madwoman living in the woods. But as Act Two happens and Caleb returns to the house possessed after getting lost in the woods, things take a turn for the supernatural. He burns with fever, speaks in tongues and appears to reject the devil before dying. The twins shake, cannot recite their prayers and go catatonic. Animals appear and don’t act like animals, omens like goat’s milk turning into blood occur, and you know know everyone in this household is in for a bad time.
At times, it seems the film is setting up Thomassin as the unlikely heroine. She watches her family descend into death and madness, and herself endures hatred and suspicion at their hands. With their Puritanical religious aspects come connotations of false accusations as first the twins, then her father and mother accuse Thomassin of being a witch, despite her protestations otherwise. This would have been another interesting direction, had the film decided to pursue it further, but it did not.
Slowly, bad goes to worse as, after the bewitched death of Caleb, the father William locks his remaining children in the barn with the goats, unable to determine which among them, if any, is a witch. Among the goats is a black billygoat called Black Phillip, which the twin girl Mercy has been singing about the whole movie. Both twins claim Black Phillip speaks to them, and Thomassin is terrified to be locked in with the three of them.
It’s here that the film really seems to lose its way. It’s been heading toward a climax, and Caleb’s devilish death pushes everyone over the edge. The children are locked together, and night falls. Catherine the mother awakes in the middle of the night to see Caleb holding baby Sam across the room. She comes to them and they spectrally ask her to simply look at a book in order to continue seeing them. The devil’s book is presented to her and we pull back to see that, rather than nursing baby Sam, there is a raven tearing at her breast.
In the barn, an ugly naked lady, similar to the one we saw sacrificing Sam earlier, is sucking blood from the white goat. The children scream. When father William comes out, the barn is destroyed, the white goats are gutted and scattered, and only a bloody Thomassin is left on the ground, staggering away in disbelief. As William calls out an accusation, he’s impaled by Black Philip’s horns and driven into the log pile. Catherine comes out and accuses Thomassin of killing everyone and attacks her. Thomassin cries and tries to fend her off, but ends up grabbing a nearby knife and killing her mother in self-defense.
So we’ve got everyone dead or, in the twins’ case, disappeared, except Thomassin. Again, here might be a chance for her to become a survivalist, and fight her way back through the wilderness to the village they left in the beginning; or she could grow into her unlikely heroine role, and take on the witch to triumph or not.
But instead, she returns to the barn that night and demands that Black Phillip speak to her the way he speaks to the twins. The camera stays on her face, that wide-eyed innocent stare we’ve seen all movie, and she’s about to turn away when a deep sibilant voice asks what she wants. They talk back and forth and she signs her name in the devil book. Then she follows Black Phillip into the woods, naked, and comes to a clearing with a fire where a variety of other naked women are writhing and chanting in a strange language. They leap and jump and eventually start to rise into the air. The camera moves back to Thomassin’s face and she starts to rise too, and starts to laugh and twist her face like the others. And we fade to black as it ends.
So, it’s hard to discern the point of this ending, or the deaths of the majority of the characters, except for the bleak perspective of “everyone gets got in the end.” Earlier, Caleb and his father have a discussion over good and evil in the woods, and how it’s impossible to know who is good and who is evil, until souls are judged at death. Then Caleb apparently dies rejecting the devil (though that may have been a trick), and father William is murdered by the devil goat. Though why did the goat kill him? He wasn’t helping the situation, he wasn’t about to solve everything. He was even making things worse with Thomassin, accusing her of witchcraft, and strengthening his accusation when she levels accusations against him and his decision to take their family away from civilization and lie to his wife. The twins disappear with no trace, which is hugely unsatisfying. Catherine’s death makes the most sense, as she has been suspicious of Thomassin ever since baby Sam’s disappearance, and has gone mad at the death of Caleb. Thomassin’s decision to turn to the devil is odd too, as she’s been the anti-witch force in the entire movie, at least as far as anyone else is concerned. At Caleb’s death scene, she is the only child who can recite the lord’s prayer, while the twins who talk to Black Phillip cannot. One could suppose despair turns her to the devil, but it just seems to come too quickly and conveniently to be believed.
I guess it’s mostly just disappointing, because “The Witch” could have done so much more with feminist over- and undertones, with the accusations and witch-blaming, and talks to send Thomassin away due to lack of food and her approaching womanhood. However, the best way to convey that is to show Thomassin’s reactions, and her reaction in the film is mostly to look wide-eyed at everything, up to and including the point where she walks away with the devil. There is no transformation we can see, so we find it hard to understand her motivations when they flipflop suddenly because the script demands it. The end, too, with all the naked women dancing around the fire, just felt gratuitous at that point. I felt let down when I saw it, like all these potential notions of real women and power they were teasing were just suddenly flattened, because the evil was a bunch of naked, ugly evil woman-witches. Case closed, how cliché. That’s the problem with choosing supernatural over psychological, and that’s why so many horror films fall flat when they finally present their reveal of the big bad evil at the end.
There was no bigger commentary, there was no subtle corruption of Thomassin through being suspected by and ousted by her family members. She wasn’t lured by the devil, she just decided to randomly approach after everyone else was dead, because ‘why not?’ I guess. She didn’t kill her mother in a fit of rage over false accusation, but cried “I love you” and only struck when being strangled. She was good and innocent all the way up to when she walked back into the barn– her turnaround doesn’t make enough sense to the viewer.
The father’s death doesn’t make sense, either. He is just randomly attacked by Black Phillip towards the end, as though the writers didn’t know what to do with him anymore and decided to kill him off. He just stares at the goat and then dies. Anti-climactic, and not even in an artsy, meaningful way!
Also, the ratcheting up from one witch to devil-and-a-coven-of-witches happens rather quickly at the end, and to no purpose except for the Black Philip reveal and end scene. The single witch/madwoman preying on the family was creepy enough, especially not knowing her motivation or background. We didn’t need the devil thrown in. We would have rather spent a bit more time watching the witch, maybe learning a bit more about her, rather than just one more appearance with the white goats in the barn, and then nothing until the end fire scene. It takes the power away from the witch. She’s just a tool of Black Phillip, and disappears for no reason. Also, we have to wonder Black Phillip’s motivation. Did he want to seduce Thomassin away from her family? Did he want all the children’s souls? We don’t know, because again, he’s not introduced until the third act, and only then as a sort of reverse Deus Ex Machina. Bascially, in gamer terms, he’s OP and it ruins the tension and allows the final part of the film to fall flat.
“The Witch” had promise, but ultimately failed, as have so many horror films before it.
Should you watch: If it’s on Netflix and you don’t have anything better to do
Should you spend money: Redbox amounts, and no more