The Witch (2015)
February 23, 2016 5:10 PM - Subscribe

A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession. A New England Folk Tale

Plenty of folks are hailing this as the scariest movie of 2016 (granted that it's only February.) I have mixed feelings about it, but production and acting were excellent. Being a pilgrim is hard, yo. Also, depending upon your point of view, it has either a horrible or a happy ending.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. (40 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I quite liked this. To me not so much a regular horror movie as, like it says, a folk tale. The 17th century witch stories are true, let's watch the surface horror. The real horror is the horror of Calvinism - if the witch stories are true, their religious basis is as well. It ALWAYS had a horrible ending. Caleb looked most likely to have gotten the happy ending.

I enjoyed the period language though it made it easy to miss a line here and there.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:19 PM on February 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

My review.
posted by brundlefly at 12:07 AM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Our archivist is an expert on the Hysteria and along with a few other experts, he got a sneak peak a few weeks ago. He really liked the movie, although some of the buttons were not accurate and there were too many lit candles. When we asked him about the plot, acting, horror, etc... he sort of shrugged and admitted he didn't pay any attention to that, not while there were barn joists to peer at.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:46 AM on February 24, 2016 [34 favorites]

This movie was not really for me in terms of content, but wow was it well made. The language was especially impressive - it's so hard to make that kind of thing work, and all the actors really sold it.

Raise your hand if you've started addressing your pet(s) as Black Phillip.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 8:13 AM on February 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

He really liked the movie, although some of the buttons were not accurate and there were too many lit candles.

There's a really good interview with writer/director Robert Eggers over on The AV Club where he talks about how they had to use more candles than people actually would have used in those times because they were shooting all the interiors with natural light. There's also a fantastic piece from last January on Grantland from after the film's premiere at Sundance that gets into much more detail, including how they scaled the windows in the house up to allow more light in. The attention to period detail in the film is seriously amazing.
posted by tomorrowromance at 11:19 AM on February 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

I showed that interview to the archivist and he perked up and said, "So he read my letter!"
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:39 PM on February 24, 2016 [17 favorites]

I think Thomasin got the best possible ending that she could possibly achieve, as well. Her mother barely concealed her distaste for her, her dad let her take the blame for the cup, add in the miserable "we're all sinners, nothing we do matters,' plus we're gonna ship you off to be a servant for money because we didn't plan well.... and ugh. Sign me up, Satan! Plus I get to fly, wheeeee..... (Also did ya'll see who played Satan?) What's a little baby stealing now and then?
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 5:34 PM on February 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Saw it and loved it, although it wasn't directly scary at all. I agree that the real horror is the cosmology that the family lives in, with the coven being just one aspect of that horror. The conversation between Caleb and the father in the woods really nails it: if a baby can burn eternally in hell for something that its parents neglected to do, then a talking goat is the least horrifying aspect of your world. In that way Thomasin (also, Black Thomas and Thomasin?) really does get the better end of the deal. Her best case scenario in a witch-less reality is being a child bride who will also live a miserable existence on a dirt farm, who may very well be damned to hell for any of a multitude of sins.
posted by codacorolla at 6:10 PM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

I loved this movie though the coven scene at the end was jarring from a tone perspective for me. I would have been content with the last shot of the film being the long shot of Thomasine and Black Phillip walking into the woods at dusk.

There's great "landscape as horror" vibe to this movie that I loved, It plays on the North European fears and legends of The Wild Wood and then ramps it up a notch by having it set in early colonial North America, where the family (and implicitly the other colonists) know NOTHING about what faces them in the wilds of the New World. It subverts the historical myth of "conquering" the frontier by implying that there is something about this new wilderness that is hostile to the coming subjugation of the continent.
posted by KingEdRa at 3:36 PM on February 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

I loved, loved, loved this movie. I was reluctant to admit it because of all the hype, but I'm pretty sure this is my new favorite movie (which I'm also sort of reluctant to tell people, because I feel weird that my favorite movie has a baby-mashing scene).

Partly it's that I really love movies about witches (I've seen oh, quite a few already), partly it's that I study historical archeology and have spent a lot of time studying things from colonial New England (at one point during the movie, I remember seeing the house and thinking about how the roof and chimney were perfect pre-Georgian construction - and now that I think about it, if I see it again I'll look to see if it's got a foundation or is just post-in-hole construction). Partly it's just that the movie was awesome.

As I said in on the Blue, I love that it's not trying to be anything but a folktale. The director even said that they threw in the scene with the witch early on because they wanted to make it clear that nope, no question, witches are real to people living in the 17th century. But so much stuff nowadays tries to rationalize this sort of thing, and it was such a treat to have a story constructed in a completely historically different kind of mindset than our own. I'm taking a class right now on demonology and witchcraft, and this movie meshes so well with the primary source materials that we're reading, and I know that was their intention (and in fact, a lot of it, including dialogue, is drawn directly from primary source materials).

Also, I'd agree with other people that it felt like the hype was all wrong for it. A big crowd of people marched out of the theater after the first ten minutes, and other people seemed really annoyed by it. They sold an introspective occult arthouse movie as a horror movie, and I can imagine that led to a lot of people being really disappointed.
posted by teponaztli at 4:05 PM on February 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

I rather liked that the witches were real. And that they were genuinely devil worshipping baby killers.

I didn't expect to like that aspect so much, but here's the thing. Most Colonial witch stories are not horror stories, but allegories for American intolerance. The witches need to be false, to show that it is madness, a sort of mania that turns neighbors on neighbors, family on family. This somehow managed to tell the same story with real witches lurking in the background.

And so it ends up telling another story too. The Puritans were religious extremists who came to a new land, but this family is like that to a magnified degree. They are not East Anglican, but Northerners, and their version of Puritanism is so punishing in that they are pushed out on their own.

And it got me thinking about how strange it must have been to be a person of faith and come to this new world, as it is such a vast land and yet showed no signs of being touched by your God. It is a whole unhallowed continent, and if your God is the one God, the universal, the all-powerful, how can there be so vast a place that has never known his touch.

So you either lose faith, or you double down. This is not just the story of colonists who were not ready for the demands of this wild land, but also for the godlessness of it -- that every day in the wild was a reminder of the absence of the holy. And so your beliefs begin to deform, to grow mad and defensive.

They have brought their mad, incomprehensible European God with them, and also their mad, incomprehensible European devil. The witches are white women. There is nothing indigenous about this evil -- it was brought by the colonists, with them. It is them as sinners, and, as the film repeatedly shows, it's hard to distinguish their sinful acts from their saintly ones. The father is a thief and liar, but for seemingly noble reasons. Thomasin is accused of speaking the words of Satan simply for telling the truth. They do not know if the baby is damned or not, or if they are damned, or if Caleb is damned -- the ecstatic words he speaks before he dies may be the lies of the devil.

And this is a world where, as mentioned, the best ending for Thomasin is that she join the witches, because her righteous family turned mad and deadly at the end, even though she had done nothing to earn it.

Other Colonial stories suggest that the original sin of the arriving Europeans was to see witches where there were none. This film suggests their original sin is arriving at all.
posted by maxsparber at 11:45 PM on February 27, 2016 [38 favorites]

If witches and the devil are real, does that mean that the family's theology is real? I'm not sure that's the case. God is completely absent as a supernatural force. The family's incredibly devout and sincere prayers are never answered. The only supernatural force is what they perceive as coming from the devil. But does it really come from the devil or is it something more like a force of nature, warped into the shape of the devil by the severity of their beliefs and their sublimated desires? I'm leaning toward the latter.

That, said just saw it yesterday and can't stop thinking about it. I would count it among the most riveting cinematic experiences I've had. As for the ending, I thought was a breathtaking and audacious coda. Can't wait to see what this director does in the future.
posted by treepour at 2:15 PM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

If witches and the devil are real, does that mean that the family's theology is real? I'm not sure that's the case.

I agree, here. Also their version of theology was so miserable, that I hope for their sake that it isn't.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 7:29 PM on March 4, 2016

If witches and the devil are real, does that mean that the family's theology is real? I'm not sure that's the case. God is completely absent as a supernatural force. The family's incredibly devout and sincere prayers are never answered.

Yeah, but the Devil exists to tempt the faithful away from God. Things don't go badly for the family because their prayers aren't answered, but because they turn on each other. They fall apart because they succumb to the lies and temptations that the Devil sets up for them. In spite of their faith, they atone for their sins except for the ones that harm them the most: the father's pride that had them leave the safety of the plantation, the mother's avarice over her cup and jealousy of her daughter, and so on. It's only Thomasin who is mostly innocent.

These elements work as human drama in a 21st century context, but in a 17th century puritanical context they're also moral elements showing how demons can corrupt the faithful. In that context, a lack of direct divine intervention isn't evidence that God doesn't exist, but Thomasin is tempted away from her faith all the same. So she signs Satan's book because she, too, has come to believe that God is nowhere to be found, when the whole time it was only Satan's plan to make her believe that.
posted by teponaztli at 8:20 PM on March 4, 2016 [9 favorites]

Part of the reason I love the movie so much is that it demonstrates the danger and harm of puritanical faith, while also being existing within that faith's worldview.
posted by teponaztli at 8:24 PM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's clearly "The Vvitch".

Really enjoyed it, and it's pretty apparent that it's taken from period accounts even without the postscript, and thus pretty crazy on account of it.

Of course actually they were all tripping balls from ergot on the corn.
posted by Artw at 10:15 PM on March 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

These elements work as human drama in a 21st century context, but in a 17th century puritanical context they're also moral elements showing how demons can corrupt the faithful. In that context, a lack of direct divine intervention isn't evidence that God doesn't exist, but Thomasin is tempted away from her faith all the same.

Hmm, that's very interesting and insightful. Thinking about this a little more, I think I'm differentiating between the cosmology of the characters and the cosmology of the universe that the characters live in. I see what you mean about God's absence being consistent with their cosmology, but I'm still not sure I agree that the film's events imply that their cosmology is real. E.g., is the film telling us that the baby and the children who died really are in hell in the universe of this film? That's one way to interpret it, but I don't think it's the only valid interpretation. The movie presents us, the viewers, with evidence for nothing but some sort of nefarious force sadistically preying on this family's fears, desires, and weaknesses. It might be the Christian devil behind it all, or it might, for example, be some spiritual force of the land, awakened to anger by the misdeeds of the invading Europeans. The trope of some mysterious force or intelligence taking on the shape of someone's worst fears (and/or desires) is a very common one in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, and I feel it's a perfectly reasonable interpretation for the events of the film.
posted by treepour at 7:03 PM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you leave the theater thinking "Well, that was a hell of a thing", the movie is probably worth some minimal consideration.

That's the extent of my immediate appraisal. I saw it because it was the last day my nearest theater was showing it. Whoof. That was a hell of a thing.
posted by figurant at 11:38 PM on March 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

Back from seeing it, going in with few expectations apart from seeing one ok trailer and a decent score on RT and having a couple of hours to kill near a cinema and with nothing else on.

Turned out to be one of the best films I've seen in a while, really got under my skin.

Lots to mull over but I think I'll say that while watching it and afterwards I was wondering how much of it was 'real' within the story and how much was nightmare / imagings and / or characters basically going mad via religious fever and extreme circumstances.

I'll be interesting in seeing what the director does next.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:06 PM on March 17, 2016

That was supposed to be 'religious fervour' but 'fever' kind of works in context
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:11 PM on March 17, 2016

I saw it on Saturday and loved it. Part of me really wants to double-feature it with A Field in England for the flat-out tripping balls experience, but then I don't know if my brain could stand it.

The music, the cinematography, the screechy little children singing their Black Phillip was all an utter delight.

But that Black Phillip song is totally in my head now. Dammit.
posted by Katemonkey at 6:17 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

He will offer you the taste of butter.
posted by Artw at 7:23 AM on March 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

That last monologue is really a big point of the movie I think. To a modern audience "live deliciously" is so banal that it might be the tagline of a yogurt company. To the pre-modern settlers who live in a real-life world of magic and peril, living deliciously is something they have no hope of doing, and to do so would be a sin. It's the same with Thomasina flying away at the end - modern audiences see freedom from oppression, pre-modern settlers viewing this as a folktale would see her selling away her mortal soul.
posted by codacorolla at 2:05 PM on March 21, 2016 [14 favorites]

Black Phillip, Black Phillip
A crown grows out his head
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
To nanny queen is wed
Jump to the fence post
Running in the stall
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
King of all.

posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:20 PM on March 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yeah, codacorolla! I loved that it ended exactly when it did. They didn't try to rationalize what was going on, and they let us draw our own conclusions.
posted by teponaztli at 3:25 PM on March 21, 2016


Finally got to see this recently and it was everything I hoped it could be and then some. The language in particular was so captivating, like Shakespeare in prose. And the screenplay is fantastic, too -- I tracked it down [Bugmenot login] to fill in the lines I'd missed, and it turned out to be so well-written that I read it cover-to-cover despite just having finished the movie. Take this early description of their first encounter with the woods:

He sits up, the warm afternoon light hitting his hopeful, teary cheeks. He lifts his hands toward heaven.

The wind blows.

KATHERINE takes his hand. THE FAMILY is in a circle, on their knees, in joyful, silent prayer. Their faces beaming.




But the family is wrapped in prayer.

Cool stuff. It's not the final version -- slightly altered dialogue and some cut scenes -- but it adds a lot of color and nuance and psychological insight. For instance, I noticed an odd pronoun change during the scene where Thomasin accosts her father:
You took Caleb to The Wood and let me take the blame of that too. You confessed not till it was too late. Is that truth? You let Mother be as thy master! You cannot bring the crops to yield! You cannot hunt! Is that truth enough?


Thou canst do nothing save cut wood!
Turns out that in this era -- and contrary to popular belief -- "you" was a pronoun of respect, while "thou" was used to address inferiors, so Thomasin's sudden switch here is a show of contempt.

One other factoid I came across -- the creepy sexual innuendo Caleb shouts on his deathbed is taken verbatim from a diary entry by John Winthrop, one of the original Puritans, which itself quotes the biblical Song of Solomon:
"O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art! Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is sweeter than wine: How lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embraces! My heart leaps for joy when I hear the voice of thee my Lord, my love, when thou sayest to my soul, thou art her salvation. O my God, my king, what am I but dust! A worm, a rebel, and thine enemy was I, wallowing in the blood and filth of my sins, when thou didst cast the light of Countenance upon me, when thou spread over me the lap of thy love, and saidest that I should live."
Such a great film -- I love thoughtful horror.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:28 PM on June 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

I interpreted the whole movie as very pro-feminist, for many reasons, one of which is that Thomasin is the central focus and she's variously treated as a sex object, an incompetent idiot, a thing to be sold off to another family, and, well, a lying witch. In this context, I interpret the "baby-mashing scene" (heh) to be a comment on what a burden babies were in a world without birth control where women were slaves to their children and husbands—just look at how obnoxious the twins are; even before they're revealed to be demonic agents, even their own parents can't stand them. A witch who is freed from the cage of family, pregnancy and childbirth can show outright contempt for these things because she exists outside of them.

(Not that I'm defending baby-mashing!!! It just strikes me that for a woman under extreme cultural pressure to marry and reproduce, a baby might be seen as a symbol of the pains of fulfilling a predetermined role instead of, you know, living deliciously).
posted by a strong female character at 7:35 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also--because I'm still thinking about this--just wanted to add that the extreme, shocking, visceral repulsiveness of the baby-mashing scene is so intense in part because it is the most extreme way a woman could possibly signal her disdain for femininity and motherhood. It's similar to the horrified faux-disbelief people express when a woman kills her babies IRL, because how could a woman do that when she's supposed to be the epitome of selfless love and nurture? (When the reality is more complicated and infanticide has a number of societal causes beyond just "new mom is insane and terrible")


posted by a strong female character at 6:57 PM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

ALSO also (I'm not done!!)--still looking at this through a very much modern 21st century feminist lens--there is also a strong theme throughout of the destructive nature of "toxic masculinity". The father tries hard to be a strong, firm, grounded, useful person according to his role as head of and provider for his family, but he fails fantastically. As Thomasin says, he's only good for chopping wood, even though he pretends to be self-assured and unassailable by his strict adherence to his interpretation of Christianity in the face of ostracization. His unrelenting stubbornness, which is both pride and a sense of masculine superiority all mixed in together, begins the path towards the family's implosion and Thomasin's defection to Satanism. In this world, a woman, a wife and mother, would never have had either the authority nor the inclination to reject her community's religious doctrine in such a way. Within the context of the film it is entirely a masculine failing to reject social support in this way, and attempt an isolated existence.
posted by a strong female character at 7:25 PM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

what a great fucking movie
posted by a strong female character at 7:25 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Watched this with family last night. I loved it -- I'm not sure how everyone else felt. Although it wasn't quite as immersive for me as I would have liked. I probably should have used headphones because I couldn't understand the dialogue as well as I wish. I would like to have seen this in the theater, it's so beautifully shot.

Seems like there's the obvious feminist commentary about this being centered around Thomasin. She's recently begun menstruating, her brother is distracted by her and her mother claims that her father has been looking at her, too. Thomasin is entirely unaware of this, I think, as well as being unaware of her mother's envy. (I saw no evidence that William was ogling Thomasin and I assume that this was Katherine's imagination. But, also, it's unclear what transpired between Katherine and faux-Caleb -- she was offered the Book, too.) In-universe, the Witch and Black Michael leveraged the inherent sinfulness of women to break this family apart and ultimately corrupt Thomasin. From our perspective, the poisonous misogyny of the patriarchy is the fulcrum by which all this destruction was wrought, though, in the end, Thomasin escapes from it into ecstasy.

Was I alone in thinking about The Master and Margarita during that final scene? It's just drawing on the same European ideas about witches and a Faustian seduction, but still it struck a chord with me.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:19 PM on July 9, 2016

Just caught this tonight, odd time of year for it, and was delighted to see my podners hyeah writin' away furiously in appreciation and admiration. max's riff up there, hell yes, that's ye stuff!
posted by mwhybark at 1:06 AM on July 13, 2017

Of course actually they were all tripping balls from ergot on the corn.

I think it's mentioned that their corn is poor. Similarly in "looking for rational explanation even though the movie SHOWED US A WITCH": Caleb's arched-back and locked-jaw muscle spasms were pretty much classically symptomatic of tetanus.

He will offer you the taste of butter.

Which I think was a trick, no? Sure, yeah, you'll get the taste. But he won't actually be giving you any butter.

William's wood-chopping made me worried throughout.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:50 PM on October 23, 2018

Oh, and what happened to the twins? Left unexplained?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:55 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, what DID happen to the twins?

Also: Chris Finch from the UK Office as the dad? Amazing.
posted by knownassociate at 8:15 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I finally watched this, and enjoyed it. A definite shift from the usual "witchcraft is an allegory for intolerance/fear/etc" pretty early on when you see what happens to Samuel. Everyone is flawed, everyone is scared, everyone is trying to keep their shit together in a really fucked up circumstance where their sins lead them to their doom. And at the end, a wonderful facial transition from delight to a somewhat disturbing rapture.

And, yeah, I was waiting for something bad to happen to William while he was chopping wood.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:02 AM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

They signpost the moldy corn quite a bit, as well as other disease leading to their decline but I love that we view this through their interpretation of it all...their paranoia, their religiosity, jealousy, ignorance and inability to make sense of the world around them.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:34 AM on July 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Heh. I just realised that it’s kind of modern in that sense.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:36 AM on July 1, 2020

Late to the party, but we just watched this last night.

I found the movie tedious and unpleasant, overall. It had the parts for a brilliant horror movie, but failed to assemble them properly. It displayed the suffocating oppression of religion but failed to really say anything about it – indeed, it sort of justified the fears and beliefs. Yep, seems to definitely be a devil at work. And it ends very badly.

This is not a flaw of the movie, really, but I don't enjoy "everybody turns on one another" plots. Along with cringe humor, those things just leave me cold. So the slow unraveling as the family turns against one another – while well-done – did not make for pleasant watching or even fear, just unhappy feels.

So much unexplained! What of the woman in the forest? What did she do? What the bleep happened to the twins?

If bleak and uncomfortable vague commentary on puritan life is your jam, you'll love this movie. If you're looking for a coherent scary movie that moves faster than a snail pulling a cement block, you might look elsewhere.
posted by jzb at 5:16 AM on November 1, 2022

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