Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Witch (2015)

I went to see this movie last night, and then sat up most of the night thinking about it. I just couldn't get it off my mind, so I went to see it again today. That's twice in twenty-four hours, which is very rare for me. I didn't even know this movie existed a week ago, until I read a little snippet about it in Entertainment Weekly. And I'm at a point right now (actually I've been at this point for a while), where a movie really has to get me excited for me to bother going out to see it in the theater.

The tradeoff of seeing a movie on the big screen (other than getting your ass off the couch and shelling out ten bucks for a ticket) is that too many movies these days are two and a half hours long or longer, with a full half hour of commercials and trailers beforehand, and I just don't enjoy dealing with the anxiety of worrying about whether I'll make it to the end before I have to use the (public) restroom, leading to an agonizing decision between missing some of the movie, and denying the ministrations of my bladder. It has the potential to considerably dampen the excitement of the experience.

But after I read that snippet in EW, I knew I had to see this movie. I've been looking for a good, classic witch movie for a long time (and I've sifted through some bad ones). I watched Salem's Lot only to learn to my disappointment that it was not about witches, but vampires. The Crucible was really good, but it was more of a realistic documentary about that historical period in which superstition fed into mass hysteria leading to the Salem Witch Trials, than any kind of a fantasy horror about actual witches. But this movie - this is like the telling of the folk tale that inspired the legend of the Blair Witch, but with actual witches!

It's also one of the best period movies I've ever seen. The colonial dialect is a bit off-putting at first, because it's frequently hard to understand what the characters are saying. But in the end, I grew to like it. It gives the movie a distinct flavor, and adds to the authenticity of the piece (in a more fluid way than, say, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village). And this movie is just swimming in atmosphere. The atmosphere is so thick, you could cut it with an athame. As a horror, it succeeds admirably, relying on mystery and an unsettling feeling of dread, while mostly eschewing the tacky jump scares and high-pitched musical cues that (sadly) plague modern horror.

At the risk of sensationalizing a small and selective trend, between this movie and last year's It Follows - which I loved - I'm tempted to say that we are witnessing the birth of a new golden age of horror. Though one great movie a year may not sound spectacular for a whole genre, by nature, the impact of the extraordinary relies on the existence of an ordinary average. And as much as I hate to say this as a fan, a lot of mediocre or just plain bad horror gets put out. Not all modern horror is bad (I'm not one of those fans), but even the "good" movies - like, say, The Conjuring, or Insidious - while not bad, aren't the kind of great movies that a cinephile lives to experience.

But this is one of those movies.

The Witch is a New England folktale about a Puritan family (that's Puritan with a capital 'P') in a largely unsettled, colonial America. Possibly facing religious discrimination for their excessive piety (the movie's not super clear on this point, but it really doesn't have to be), they are exiled from their plantation and driven out into the untamed wilderness, to try and set up a farm on the outskirts of what may be a haunted forest. Whatever your opinion of their religious beliefs (it would have been easy to draw these characters as unlikable caricatures, but to its credit, the movie genuinely tries to sympathize with them, even as it reveals the futility of their spiritual struggle), these are basically good people, just trying to survive in a cruel world, in a way that might please their strict but (arguably) loving God.

On the surface, this movie could be a representation of the age-old struggle of man vs. nature - as well as his own nature - that explores the way in which man attempts to ascribe supernatural meaning to things he doesn't understand, and the dichotomous extent to which these superstitions can either aid or obstruct his attempts not just to survive, but to make sense of things, and acquire success and happiness in life. That would be true even if the witch in this story had been nothing more than superstition - but I'm glad that she's not.

Because instead we get a deadly serious take on classical witchcraft - complete with midnight rendezvous by firelight, the devil in the guise of a horny goat, and an old hag cooking up mischief (including, but not limited to: blood sacrifice, levitating brooms, and a deceptively seductive glamour), not to mention creepy animal familiars. The glimpses we see of wickedness in this movie are brief (sometimes mercifully so, other times maybe not so much) - keeping the focus on the family's gradual disintegration as the tragedy slowly unfolds - but terribly effective. An early scene involving an infant toys devilishly with the audience's expectations of good taste - as the most memorably unsettling horror movies do - setting the stage for the unrelenting weight of the story that's begun to unfold, and the breathless climax it ultimately builds up to.

I think part of this movie's greatness is that the plot is simple, smartly focused on the human drama, but while simultaneously hinting at some pretty heavy themes - in a way that doesn't bang you over the head (as a "message" movie would), but leaves you instead with lots of food for thought. The very premise is inspired, pitting the strains of a Puritan lifestyle against its ideological opposite - a naturalistic hedonism unrestrained by man-made laws. And, as is all too infrequently the case in movies like this, the lure of the dark side is adequately represented in the near-perfect (apart from an odd choice of body double - or, really, the need to use a body double at all) conclusion - evil wouldn't be so problematic if it weren't so damn tempting, now would it? - even without watering down its more gruesome aspects. Which is quite remarkable. This is a movie that ably demonstrates God's failure in remaining silent while the devil mounts an aggressive advertising campaign.

I'd just like to say that, while dancing naked in the woods does indeed feel amazing, you don't need to make a pact with the devil, or sacrifice a newborn infant, in order to experience it. That's a Puritan fantasy, born out of opposition to an extremist view of anhedonic purity. When even the merest thought of pleasure is a sin, to indulge in it is akin to the wildest reveries of the Bacchanalia. It's no wonder, then - human nature being what it is - that the Puritans are so susceptible to temptation, in spite of (or rather, exacerbated by) their constant denials. What's not to love about the idea of giving in to one's nagging, unavoidable desires, when your whole life is spent struggling futilely against them? A better approach is to accept and acknowledge human nature, and learn how to indulge in it without succumbing to excess.

But in the meantime, kindly restrain from accusing those of us who do enjoy the good things in life from being in league with the devil. Okay? Thanks.

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"

(On second thought, the black mass has never looked so appealing).

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