Friday, August 14, 2015

MIFF Session #13: THE WITCH

A family of religious zealots are thrown out of a community of religious zealots for being too ... zealous. As they are leaving with their goods and chattles we notice a pair of native Americans walking unresisted into the village. The pilgrim fathers therein are clearly pragmatic enough to trust the heathen locals to help them get by. It also clues us in to what we are about to receive.

The family stop at some lush scenery near a forest and a stream. In the time it takes to build a decent farmhouse out of local materials, eldest daughter Thomasin is playing hide and boo with the family's newest, Samuel. "Oh where am I? ... Boo!" which she has the patience to repeat until she opens her eyes to say boo and the bairn is gone, only a shaking shrub at the edge of the forest to bear witness to the abduction.

Then we get a brief sequence which tells us that we are not going to see a film where the witchcraft is all in the mind of the iggrant god-botherers but actually happening. So, this throws out the Blair Witch in corsets, Crucible and Black Sunday scenarios because nothing is quite behaving the way we expect. That keeps up.

We then follow the sinking fortunes of a family who are discovering the history of farming all over again and the disappearance of one of their own even serves as local legend of sorts (was it witch or wolf that did the deed?) which compounds their already nutso Christianity. Eldest boy Caleb is having to work out his own burgeoning sexual development by himself, gazing at his nubile sister with an intensity that he both enjoys and is deeply ashamed of. The parents have a number of conflicts left unresolved while the business of survival rolls on. But they are no readier to dissolve than the fears of the witch in the woods and will soon find explosive venting of their own.

That's not quite it but to say more of the events unfolding on screen would become exhausting for their sheer linearity. And linear it is. And this is where this film earns its points. This is far less the wild freedom vs constrained civilisation of The Woman than the grinding depth of Kes. Uh huh, this is the horror film that Ken Loach would make if make a horror film he would. As such, we bear the daily drudge of life the slow-as-corn-growing lane at the same time as we receive glimpses into what seems like a literal manifestation of a witch in the woods.

But is this waht we are seeing or the product of religious minds so extreme they were thrown out of sawdust breakfast central? Is the scene where Caleb's teenaged horniness finds fulfillment as blackly magic as it plays for us or something more private and personally explosive? But even this plays strangely with our expectations. We are given the strange comfort of seeing a monstrosity in pleasingly ghastly detail, draw our own conclusions from the incantations of the younger two children playing with the local ram, Black Phillip, and the appearance of the hare whose wrangler deserves all the grass that is edible for giving us such a projectible creature.

The Witch quite simply eats its cake and has it. We get the undeniable but it happens to people committed to denial, fighting the environment in a place where they do not belong. So, we get a horror movie that is short on scares but gigantic on unease and its causes which lie firmly in the familiar territory of the kind of belief that seeks to conquer at all costs, the kind of belief that can scarcely distinguish between childrens' songs, infernal chanting and the language of the psalms. I can hear Ken enviously grinding his teeth in the auditorium from here.

Liked it. Didn't love but like is a high score for a contemporary horror film in a field so bereft of them.

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