If you’re any kind of film buff, you’ll love Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch; and if you’re interested in Puritanism or Calvinism, it’s an extraordinary eye-opener.
I heard several interviews with Eggers before I saw the film; he’s a genial and entertaining interviewee and very funny on the subject of goat-wrangling, which – bizarrely – was crucial to the success of his film. Apparently a goat doesn’t have to be demonic to be difficult, and the screenplay was modified quite substantially to accommodate the peccadilloes of the leading goat.
More intriguing was the fact that his film was endorsed by the Satanic Temple as an accurate depiction of witchcraft practices. If you dig deeper and read some of his interviews online, it’s clear that Eggers equally strove for perfection in his depiction of Calvinistic speech forms, pioneer agricultural practices, Puritan shoes – and everything else.
What struck me most, however, was the truth of its depiction of an adolescent girl – Thomasin, played by a mesmerising Anya Taylor-Joy - and her struggle to maintain her integrity within a chronically dysfunctional family.
In 1630s New England, Thomasin’s Puritan family are banished from their community because of her father’s religious intransigence, and they are forced to cope alone on the edge of a forest. Their baby disappears; their crops fail. Maybe there’s a coven of witches in the woods, actively working against them. But maybe there isn’t – maybe their problems lie within the heart of the family.
Eggers does all kinds of clever things with his film, and one of them is to play tricks with the trope of the Final Girl.
The term “Final Girl” was coined by Carol J. Clover and explained in her book “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film”, first published in 1992. Clover analysed the portrayal of women in popular horror films and slasher movies, and noted the potency of the Final Girl trope - a virginal girl with short hair and a unisex name, who is the last person left alive to defeat and kill the scary monster.
The theory is that the Final Girl is androgynous so that male viewers can identify with her and be scared without risking their masculinity – she tends to pick up a phallic knife or chainsaw at the end, and naturally, thanks to this, she is able to triumph. Her role can’t be played by a man because she must be shown screaming in abject terror; it’s believed that viewers would not accept a film where a man showed such fright.
The Final Girl is usually brunette as well as rather frigid; sexually active blondes get tortured and killed early on, in the familiar film trope of punishing any woman who enjoys her sexuality.
In The Witch, there’s a twist to the Final Girl trope which packs a satisfying feminist punch.
The Witch is Tarkovskian in the way it’s shot, and the way it remains in your psyche. If you like Tarkovsky’s films – particularly The Mirror – you’ll recognise the effects: the camera lingers obsessively on natural beauty, from the children’s faces to the misty woods and fields, imprinting them on your memory. The actors in The Witch, especially the child actors, are phenomenal, with a pair of twins who are uniquely adorable and maniacal in their little Puritan costumes.
What you won’t get from The Witch is the usual rollercoaster of shocks which are de rigueur in a conventional horror movie, and for that reason the film angered many cinema audiences on first release.
Frankly it’s more a meditation on horror than a horror film, and all the more delicious for it.
The Witch is available on DVD, and I’d recommend it, with one proviso: I never think about that film late at night, because I won’t risk letting any of its creatures into my dreams.