This weekend, horror junkies all over the country finally got to see The Witch, the debut film by Robert Eggers that critics have been raving about since last year's Sundance Film Festival. I finally saw the film Sunday night, and for me it lived up to the massive wave of hype, and then some.
SPOILERS for The Witch Ahead
The Witch is an impeccably crafted film, and the word craft applies in every respect, from the production design to the cinematography to the performances. I'm not sure if there's a single key to The Witch's success, but if I had to pick one, it would be the one still drumming along in my brain nearly 48 hours after I saw the film: This movie is a masterclass in how to reveal and sustain its villain.
In horror filmmaking, there are two major schools of thought when it comes to monsters. On the one hand, you have the Spielbergian less-is-more approach, the Jaws approach, an approach perhaps taken to an extreme by films like The Blair Witch Project, a movie in which the villain's presence is only noted through things like stick figures and children's handprints on walls.
On the other hand, there's the Frankenstein approach, or the Friday the 13th Part 3 approach. In the former of those films, it's all about seeing Karloff transformed into a flat-topped creature ready to wreak havoc. In the latter, we've built a mythology, and we just want to see Jason kill stuff. I'll never forget the shot of Jason calmly walking out onto a dock, harpoon gun in hand, taking careful aim and shooting a girl in the eye because she's frozen in disbelief. It's no longer the "What on Earth is happening?" approach. We know what's happening, and all we can do is watch.
Eggers' film walks the line between these two approaches. As many early reviewers were quick to point out, the title is not a trick. There's a witch -- a wrinkled crone who looked like she walked right out of the Malleus Maleficarum -- and she shows up early. Just as the family at the heart of the film begins to settle into their new home, she takes their baby, slices him up, and rubs his blood all over herself and her broomstick. the scene concludes with The Witch (unnamed, because she's more a force of nature than a character) riding her broomstick off into the night, silhouetted powerfully against the moon. This Witch is real, and if she's willing to do that as her entry into the film, how far will she go?
Eggers has our attention, and he could take this encounter between a devout family and the Witch of the Wood in the direction of no-holds-barred splatterfest, but instead he backs off. He knows we understand his monster and we understand the stakes, so it's time instead to focus on the family. Our Puritans suffer through a mixture of grief, economic desperation and, most importantly, paranoia. The mother, Katherine, becomes convinced someone stole her prized silver cup. The father, William, holds fast to his faith even as he begins to doubt his own course. The twins Jonas and Mercy are having weird conversations with a goat named Black Phillip. Then, at the center of it all, there's the eldest child, Thomasin, who tries to be the dutiful daughter even as her own crisis of faith and curiosity about the Wood grows stronger.
We only see The Witch, herself, two more times in the film, once when she's in disguise and once when she's at her cackling peak, but through a combination of beautiful visual intrigue, metaphor, and a truly horrific exorcism scene, we always feel her influence. As Eggers has said in interviews, for this film, he sought to take the Puritan nightmare of what a witch could be and make it come true. A Witch isn't just a baby-slaughtering hex-mistress. She's someone who can, through a combination of mysterious words and deeds we never actually see, drive your entire family to doom, and you'll never even know it until it's too late. By the time of The Witch's final appearance, sneaking into the barn to drink the blood of goats and steal away Jonas and Mercy, Eggers could have popcorn sticking to the ceiling with a jump scare, but instead he lets his extended shot of her pale, nude back end with a simple turn of the head and an almost predictable cackle. To me, that's not just the Witch taunting the kids. That's a knowing wink from Eggers, himself. He doesn't need any more horror trickery. He's already won.
Not content to win in the horror department, Eggers goes a step further, taking us to a confrontation between Thomasin, her family's only survivor, and Black Phillip, the earthly representative of The Adversary, himself. Thomasin has watched this unearthly influence rip her family apart, and even as she was often accused of being the source of it all, of being The Witch herself, she's been both terrified and awed by the power at work. So, finally, she asks for a taste of it, herself, and the film ends not in terror, but in ecstasy. Thomasin has been taught her entire life to fear witches, to fear the influence of the devil, and in the end she watched as Puritan ideals not only failed to save her family, but drove her into a miserable life as an accused heretic. So, instead of running from the monster, she allows herself to be seduced by it, and our final glimpse of witches in the film is one of frantic, fiery celebration.
So, after 90 minutes of carefully manipulating his monster, Eggers shows us The Witch as a triumphant figure, and we're left to wonder all the way home whether we too might want a piece of that triumph. That's the mark of a great monster: They refuse to remain in the confines of the theater, and hover over our very lives after the credits roll.