Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 21, 2016 1:11 pm 
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Period horror

The Witch is a horror movie hit from Sundance that comes with the twin backhanded compliment: it's neither a typical Sundance hit nor a typical horror movie. It takes us to 1630, near Salem, Massachusetts, and an outcast family of seven who speak only in authentic accents as they descend into sad misfortune. A "folktale," the young director says, actually a blend of them, where what we might see as family dysfunction and parental failure get blamed on the Devil and witchcraft. Perhaps we are meant to see events both in the old Salem way and the modern way. But the movie, which is beautiful, if grim, flavors its violence and miserabilism with brief dazzling images of the occult in action.

"Unlike The Crucible," Mike D'Angelo wrote from Sundance, "The Witch isn’t trying to make a statement, or draw pointed parallels to current events—it’s trying to freak the living shit out of the audience, and succeeding mightily." True, and it does this tastefully, with a sense of period, restrained, economical effects and handsome cinematography. We're particularly aware of the authentic language. The dialogue is adapted from documents, and totally redolent of the early 17th century, full of "thee's" and "thou's" and archaic verb forms, the accents English, the actors all Brits. Eggers is a production designer and costume designer, and the clothes are so handsome one wants to touch them. One only wonders a bit, though, if a wife of that time like Katherine (Kate Dickie), here, would talk back and be so critical of her husband (the solemn, humorless William, played by Ralph Ineson); but you never know.

The family is in trouble from frame one. William is banished from the settlement for unacceptable behavior, so he takes his wife and five children to live on the edge of the woods. Thus isolated, they don't do well. The corn crop is lousy, and father and older son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) fail to kill even a rabbit. But that's not the half of it. The baby boy disappears while the beautiful eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with him. This casts a doubt on Thomasin that will never go away. But it's the angelic Caleb who will first be invaded by evil spirit, and meet with the Witch (Bathsheba Garnett), sitting bathed in lovely sunlight in front of her cabin, with a scarf glowing in Satanic crimson. (Sometimes the digital images make the forest trees shimmer in super-sharpness like cold air after a rain.)

The Witch is so well done in its look, costumes, and period details, one can't help wondering if the filmmaker mightn't have produced something better, something with more plot and character development, something not so purely genre, something not just designed only to "freak the living shit" out of us but to provide the kind of rich human experience of hard settler life or tormented family conflict we get in Jan Troell's New World trilogy or the films of Ingmar Bergman. Genre has its pleasures, smart distributors (like A24) to rush in and snap it up, critics to gush over it when it's done this well, and a general audience to buy tickets for it. But if this is a classy horror flick, it's not even a triumph of genre: it can't generate the mystification and shock value Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's Blair Witch Project or Matt Reeves' Cloverfield achieved.

The Witch, 93 mins., debuted at Sundance, showing at nearly a dozen other festivals including Toronto and London. US theatricl release began Fri., 19 Feb. 2016. Watched at Regal Union Square 21 Feb.

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