Tuesday 25 October 2016

We Don't Go Back #1: The Witch (2015)

And the leaves redden, like blood.
 It's Autumn. The evenings are drawing in. It's a good few years since I've done anything like it, but I've got a yen to watch something scary as the afternoons get darker, as the leaves grow red, and gather around my feet.

I remember doing a fair few horror reviews on one of my old blogs. I thought I'd do it again for the next week or so, with a selection of film and TV that broadly fall under the umbrella of "folk horror".

What's folk horror? Well. The horror comes from superstition, old things, the land. Folk horror is about witches and rural isolation, the claustrophobia of an open space where things hide, the horror that comes from encroaching age. Things are mended, repaired, dented, scratched. Communities are closed. Folk religions, Christian and pagan, butt up against each other. The nearest help is miles away. Supernatural elements might exist, but they're often muted, and often ambiguous as to whether they're objectively real. I've got a list, and it's open to change, and I've included some American films that I feel fall under the umbrella; so really, it's more folky horror.

The list, then. I've decided to pick a mixture of the obvious and obscure. I've chosen: Nigel Kneale's TV plays Murrain (1975) and Baby (1976); Lesser-known BBC ghost story Stigma (1977); Simon Magus (Ben Hopkins, 1999); A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, 2013); Czech classic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (AKA Valerie a týden divů, Jaromil Jireš, 1970); and of course The Wicker Man because you have to, and I have a copy of the Director's Cut that I've never watched even though I've had it for years. On the more controversial (read: American) side, I also want to look at the unsettling documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (James Marsh, 1999); Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (Philip Ridley, 1996). Some of these I've seen; most I haven't.

Today, I'm going to start with The Witch: A New England Folktale. Readers who care about such things should be warned that this post, as with all of them, will spoil plot details.
So it's New England, late 17th century. A Puritan settlement kicks a family out for causing trouble. We don't find out what it was that the father, William, did, only his justification:
William: What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers' houses? We have travelled a vast ocean. For what? For what?
Governor: We must ask thee to be silent!
William: Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels, and the Kingdom of God?
Old Slater: No more! We are your judges, and not you ours!
William: I cannot be judged by false Christians, for I have done nothing, save preach Christ's true Gospel.
That scene both sets the film's direction and subverts your expectations of it. Much talk there is of Puritan Christianity in authentic 17th century English, with its rhythms and cadences and dosts and thees. You expect patriarch William (a prolific British character actor, best known perhaps as Chris Finch in The Office), whose gravelly baritone and melancholy features so fit the grim Calvinism he espouses to be a tyrannical and abusive fundamentalist. In fact he isn't. He is flawed, and he's a man of flawed, austere convictions, but he is at once a loving father and, crucially, sympathetic. If he wasn't able to examine his faults, love his children, weigh their stories, and be as reasonable and decent as a Puritan could be, he wouldn't be the glue that holds the film together. And he is. As much as the star of the film is supposedly Anya Taylor-Joy's teenage Thomasin, who keeps getting the blame for the supernatural manifestations that steal the other children away, one by one, the baby, the preadolescent son, the twins, until only she is left and the remains of the family – Katherine, the brittle mother who at one point confesses to having had sexual fantasies about Jesus; William, no longer able to cope, no fight left in him – are lost to violence and despair.
The baby vanishes from Thomasin's care. They tell each other it's a wolf with a sort of desperate certainty, but surely no Wolf could steal a child so fast, in the literal blink of an eye. Caleb, the older boy, terrified that his baby brother is in hell, fretting, doesn't, can't accept his father's attempts at comfort. They go looking for apples, and find none; there is a lie pertaining to where father and son went and Thomasin is blamed. Thomasin scares the twins by pretending to be a witch and they believe her. Later Thomasin and Caleb go to the woods; they're separated; Thomasin is blamed. He reappears, delirious and naked, and Thomasin finds him. Even though her father tries and tries to bring the family to reason, even he turns against Thomasin, whose only perversity is really the commonplace rebellion of adolescence.
Thomasin and Caleb
As the children vanish or die, hysteria clutches the family more and more tightly, and Thomasin at its centre, the scapegoat (ironic, given the prominence of an actual goat) has every avenue of escape closed to her. The ending has faced some criticism, but it's the only ending the film could have; whether it's real or in Thomasin's head is irrelevant – only the final horror of her internalising and accepting the role forced on her matters, real or not.

People either love or despise this movie. One of my dearest friends told me that I absolutely must watch it; someone turned up at the ill-fated poetry night I ran earlier this year having just come from the cinema and told me it was one of the worst films ever.

Surely this wasn't the same film I just watched. I find it hard to imagine any world where this is a bad film. The acting is great, just stylised enough. The sound design is amazing, all wind and distance. And the images – a goat whispers secrets, a raven pecks at a delirious woman's breast, the children chant and scream, a dying boy, screaming, coughs up a poisoned apple – are all considered, solemn, with a raw, splintery edge to them. The dread rises, and the final, cathartic coda is perfect. I love this film. It is absolutely what a folk horror film should be. I think it's one of the best  – and creepiest – new films I've seen in years.