Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Black Phillip

Film: The Witch
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

Has there been a resurgence in horror? It feels like there are suddenly good, new horror movies around that are getting good reviews not just from genre wonks and horror fanboys but from actual critics. One of those leading the way in that respect is The Witch (also called The Witch: A New-England Folktale, and sometimes written as The VVitch). There’s a lot here that works in terms of overall horror cred. I think there’s a small chance it might make next year’s 1001 Movies list. It hits a lot of those notes—it’s highly acclaimed in an underrepresented genre, it’s a period piece, and it’s heavy on the atmosphere instead of the gore. Finally, the critical acclaim is far above the typical audience rating. Fingers crossed that it makes it.

As mentioned, this is very much a period piece, taking place in the very early days of Puritan life in the Americas. At a plantation, a family of Puritans is sent into the wilderness because the father, William (Ralph Ineson), has been preaching a different interpretation of the gospels. Defiant, William leads his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (the awesomely-named Harvey Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) into the wilderness. The family sets up a farmstead, and soon there is a fifth child, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube). Everything seems to be going well for the family.

Until it suddenly isn’t. One day, while she is caring for Samuel, Thomasin takes her eyes off her brother for a few seconds and Samuel has disappeared. William takes Caleb into the forest, kind of to look for the missing Samuel, but mainly to hunt. The family’s crop has become infected with something, and if they do not get meat, they will likely starve. William admits to his son that he has taken Katherine’s silver cup and sold it for hunting supplies. Meanwhile, the twins claim that they have conversations with Black Phillip, the family goat.

Emboldened by his father taking him into the forest, Caleb prepares to go hunting himself, and Thomasin catches him, demanding that he take her with him. When they spot a rabbit, the family dog runs off with Caleb following, while Thomasin is thrown from the horse. Naturally, Caleb is now missing and soon accusations are starting to fall on Thomasin from her mother in particular since the family seems to be so suddenly cursed. Caleb eventually turns up, naked, feverish, and delirious, and the finger point starts. Mercy and Jonas accuse Thomasin of being a witch while she reveals that the twins have been speaking to the black goat, which is honestly enough for a Puritan to indicate a connection with dark powers.

There’s a great deal that makes The Witch work. A large part of this is that despite the fact that the family lives in the middle of nowhere next to a forest and with only their own farm buildings around them, it is almost impossibly claustrophobic. Everything seems to be entirely closed off, with the family completely isolated and unable to seek help from anyone. The children are generally prevented from entering the forest, leaving them trapped at the homestead. There is nowhere for them to go.

This is assisted in great part by the fact that virtually the entire movie was lit by natural light. It adds a good sense of time and place to the movie, making all of this seem much closer to being something that is really happening, that we are witnessing, rather than a story that we are being presented.

It also works that there are very few jump scares. Instead, the entire intent is to build up an atmosphere of growing terror. By the end, it is plenty scary, but it takes a long time to get there. It’s never boring, and the tension ramps up so carefully once Samuel disappears that it’s almost not noticed until it’s overwhelming. It’s masterfully done until we get to an ending that would seem impossible and startling looked at from the beginning, but feels natural (if horrifying) by the time we get to it.

It’s also worth noting that the movie does offer multiple possible explanations for what the family experiences. Is there an actual witch in the woods that is affecting the family? Perhaps there is. Is the family’s grain harvest infested with ergot? Well, that’s a possibility, too, and it’s an important one. For those who want a supernatural cause, it’s there. For those who don’t, the possibility remains open.

Actually, everything works here, from the intensely atmospheric soundtrack to the sets and the period costumes. The Witch is more than simply showing us a good spook story from America’s past; it feels like a real event being shown to us and offered without comment as something that really happened.

This is how horror movies are done at the highest level. Evidently this is the first feature-length film of director Robert Eggers, and it’s incredibly impressive. This is a guy who has shown up on the scene with a lot of his skills at a high level. We need more horror movies like this that provide genuine scares based on the story and how that story is filmed rather than gore, splatter, and cheap jump scares. If you’re at all a fan of the genre and haven’t seen this, you need to see it. That said, if you’re really just interested in jump scares and gore, you’ll likely be bored by it. The Witch is smart, and the lowest common denominator crowd need not apply.

Why to watch The Witch: This is how horror gets done.
Why not to watch: If you’re a gorehound, you’ll probably hate it.


  1. I really liked this too. There are ideas throughout that don't necessarily connect to the film's conclusion, but add to the overall oppressiveness of it all; the tension between Thomasin and Caleb, the hints of something incredibly sinister and horrible happening to the baby at the beginning, the father's lie about the cup.

    1. There is a way to look at this as a case of ergotism. A lot of what happens can be explained as something like a collective madness. If there are things that don't seem to connect, this might be evidence for that reading of the film.

      Still, the last 20 minutes of this are tremendous however you read what really happens.

  2. Finally finished the film. I had trouble keeping my attention on it. I'm no gorehound or anything. It's just an insanely slow-paced film. But I can agree that it's a masterful slow burn... but still a painful one. The last 5 minutes, once (spoilers) Black Phillip talks, it's pretty outstanding. Though I suppose you needed the rest of the movie to get to that point.

    1. I think so. I think things get really interesting once Caleb returns and shit starts to get really weird.