By Deirra Francis
“The Witch” is a 2015 horror folktale directed and by Robert Eggers. He is also a costume designer and known for “The Tell-Tale Heart (2008) and “Hansel and Gretel”. It takes place in 1630 New England and is a chronological film. Terror and despair ascends a farmer, his wife and four children when the youngest son Samuel vanishes. The family blames Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter who was watching the boy at the time of his disappearance. With suspicion and paranoia arising, twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) suspect Thomasin of witchcraft.
The title “The Witch” literally tell you what the story is about. The movie is a period piece and recreated the look of New England in 1630. For this film, the efforts to maintain atmosphere come at the expense of authentic story telling. For this reason, the film does nothing to transcend the generic tropes of horror filmmaking. The folk setting is truly ideal for its religious themes and content.
The production designer who is also the director researched Elizabethan clothing for the men and women. During this era the clothes worn were in relation to the status of the person wearing them. This was not only dictated by the wealth of the person but also their social standing. The working lower class women such as the family in The Witch wore materials such as silk, taffeta, and velvet trimmings. For the underclothes, a corset or bodice was often worn by the older teenage girls and women. The females also wore stockings, farthingale (a hooped skirt) the items of clothing allowed had Buttons and the facing of coats, cloaks, hats and caps. The men’s underclothes consisted of a shirt, stockings, and codpiece. Men also wore Separate sleeves, breeches, belt, ruff, cloak, shoes and a hat.
New England’s residents lived in cottages and had small farms. This particular family had a farm near the forest where you would hear roosters, lambs, sheep, and goats in the background. This setting determined the life and destiny of the characters in the movie. This little world that the family lived in the middle of the forest felt isolated. A special type of symbolic setting is known as a microcosm, meaning human activity in a small and limited area is representative of human behavior or the human condition in the world as a whole. In such a setting special care is taken to isolate the characters from all external influences so that the “little world” seems self-contained. The limited group of people, which contains representative human types from various walks of life or levels of society, might be isolated (125).
The director’s primary focus and unifying element is to have its audience be affected emotionally or change their mood. For example, in the film each step leads to a powerful emotional effect because while the plot of the movie is important, the emotional response from the audience is the goal for the director. In the exposition of the film we are introduced to the characters and shown some of their interrelationships in a believable time and place. For example, the judge and jury are sentencing the father and his family as he looks on to meet their fate. The audience sees the subjective viewpoint, where the camera is put on the judge and jury in the courtroom to give us the characters view of action. The emotional intensity builds up for the characters, as they look nervous and create a strong sense of direct involvement by the audience. This visual sequence of the camera forces the audience to experience the emotions of the characters. As the family was banished from their community, the experience became more intense and I felt intimately involved in the action-taking place.
An indirect-subjective point of view was used in one of the first scenes as Thomasin played peekaboo with baby Samuel and then the baby disappears. Thomasin closes her eyes the third time and the baby Samuel disappears when she opens them. Here the camera has a close up of Thomasin’s face to show the change of emotion and look of horrorrealizing the baby has vanished. I can immediately empathize with Thomasin as it is something unearthly that must have taken the baby in order for him to disappear so swiftly! The camera conveyed the emotional reaction of the Thomasin and drew me into feeling like I was the character in that moment. According to The Art of Films “The indirect subjective point of view does not provide a participant’s point of view, but it does bring us close to the action so that we feel intimately involved and our visual experience is intense (170).” The close-up of the face grimaced in pain is more effective than an objective shot from a larger distance.
Furthermore, the witch is shot well, with a direct aesthetic design and sharp photography. The clarity of the aesthetic to some extent goes against realism of the conveyed period and settings, though the horror/folk aspect of the film may help one see past this anachronistic detail. In spite of this, The Witch is highly visually appealing. A long dolly shot from a carriage appears near the beginning, defining the film’s observant and perhaps detached cinematographic style. This style is contrasted greatly in moments of horror, such as when Caleb, in a noteworthy scene, speaks to Jesus while the camera jump cuts in close-ups and whips around his delirious face.
Certain visual motifs and clichés litter the film. Creepy pair of twins, a black sheep and ominous shapes figures prominently. The main protagonist is, of course, a young pale virgin female. Her perceived innocence and how it becomes tarnished by the sin around her becomes of most importance to the film’s underlying thematic intentions. The Witch is not so much about the horror of witch’s actions but about the horror of humanity’s actions in response to a perceived ‘witch’. When this concept becomes realized towards the end of the film, it provides a substantial conclusion to an otherwise mundane film. The ending is definitely worth the watch and retroactively justifies much chaos, convolution, and contrivance found throughout the film.
In an interview for an A.V.Club article Eggers expressed that feminism was the movies political subtext. In fact it got an endorsement from a group called the Satanic Temple, which said it “departs from the victim narrative of witchcraft” as a “declaration of feminine independence. Looking back in history, it’s clear that the evil witch is-it embodies men’s fear and ambivalences and fantasies about women and female power. In that period, the evil witch was also fears and ambivalences about themselves and their power. Eggars actually spent five years making this film and four to write and finance it. He worked as a part time production designer so he could spend more time in the library for research. In Eggars thought process, the films that are most atmospheric and transferable are approached with memory.
The film is dark, exposure-wise as well as in subject matter. The DP and Eggars spent a great deal of time in recreations of these kinds of houses from New England, trying to understand what it would really be like to live during this time. The realization of the darkness and the sounds of nature are intense! The cameras the production used worked very well with low light. All natural light was used and the interiors were lit with flame. The farm used for the setting was built authentically; production used period construction methods and tools to make it look parallel. The music for scenes in the movie was inspired by 17th and 20th century. Eggars also decided to use voices in his music during pre production.
Eggars isn’t looking forward to contemporary filmmaking, historical films are his niches. He will be remaking Nosferatu and another film called The Knight.