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VVitch: A New-England Folktale, The

Entry updated 13 August 2018. Tagged: Film.

Film (2015; vt The Witch). A24 presents a Parts and Labor, RT Features, Rooks Nest Entertainment, Maiden Voyage Pictures and Mott Street Pictures production in association with Code Red Productions, Scythia Films, Pulse Films and Special Projects. Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Cast includes Wahab Chaudhry, Lucas Dawson, Kate Dickie, Ellie Grainger, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy. 93 minutes. Colour.

The Gods and Demons of the Puritan Religion destroy a family of New England colonists from within.

"We are your judges, not you ours," stalwart Puritan and settler of the "new" world William (Ineson) is told at the beginning of The VVitch: A New-England Folktale. William and wife Katherine (Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Scrimshaw) and young twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) are banished from the North American plantation at which they have resided over a point of doctrine, and take up residence at the edge of a wood of the sort haunted by the feverish European imaginings of Charles Perrault (1628-1703) or Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859). The inclusion of fairy tale motifs is not the surprising thing about The VVitch; it is the way the film switches suddenly from the symbolic ambiguity of Fabulation – we are invited to construe for much of the first half of the story that the family's fear of sin and ungodliness is what drives them first to anxiety and then to madness and violence – to the literal malevolence of Horror that arrests the expectations of its audience.

Katherine, the mother of the family and sorely put-upon by the turn of events, gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel. Eldest daughter Thomasin – "She hath begat the sign of her womanhood" – is playing peek-a-boo with Samuel when the baby is suddenly vanished from under her; a wolf is blamed but Mercy says she saw a witch. Suspicions – these turn out to be entirely founded – fall first upon each member of the family's commitment to the farmstead and then, first implicitly and then explicitly, upon Thomasin herself: it is the first flowering of her Sex that poses the threat to the curiously-strangulated belief system from which she hails (see Imperialism; Feminism). There seems to be no natural process unexplained by the Puritan conception of God that does bespeak the original sin that brings on the devil and his minions.

We are shown a witch very early in the narrative: she uses the blood of baby Samuel for Magic, poisons Caleb after luring him into the forest, pecks away at the bloody and exposed breast of grieving Katherine as a raven disguised as a suckling baby, but we are not sure of the provenance or point-of-view of these sudden outbursts of demonic imagery. This is often the case in the best traditions of "folk horror", a subgenre of Cinema briefly popular in the 1970s and once again rising to some prominence; films such as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) use landscape, isolation and outmoded moral perspectives [see Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017) by Adam Scovell under "further reading" below] to undermine human assumptions about the environments in which we operate. How much of what we are seeing in The VVitch is actually happening and how much is accented by the fears and misapprehensions of Christian Mythology?

"Black Phillip", the family's dark-haired billy goat, has the answer: he it is who has cozened Mercy and Jonas by whispering imprecations in their ears, driven the family to bloody violence and murder, and who finally rears up on hind legs to kill pater familias William with a kick; Thomasin, unfairly accused and traduced and treated as a commodity due to her gender, finally offers herself to the dark one after being forced to murder her mother in self-defence: "Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?" Black Philip (Chaudhry) asks her: "Wouldst thou live deliciously?" She kneels before him to seal the covenant [see Pacts with the Devil in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] exactly as she has knelt before her father to pray earlier in the narrative. "I cannot write my name," she tells Black Phillip. "I will guide thy hand," he replies, adding: "Remove thy shift." Naked and covered in blood, she follows Black Philip into the forest, where witches dancing around a bonfire begin slowly to levitate into the night air.

The VVitch is a curious artefact. The stylization of its title comes from a Jacobean pamphlet on witchcraft, its costumes (designed by Linda Muir) are thoroughly researched from Stuart Peachey's Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (2014) and its cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is intended to replicate the formal composition of paintings of the period. That much of the dialogue is lifted from writings and witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century lends a curiously dislocated tone to the whole affair: one which might connote the unsuitability of the European paradigm to the North American locale if not for the fact that the religious fervour turns out to be correct in every particular. Thus The VVitch's connection to the traditions of Fantastika – a body of literature that communicates its themes most resonantly when read literally and which seeks to interrogate the Politics of the Western world by comparison with exotic locales or buried truths – is both disrupted and enlivened by its almost-documentary devotion to historical accuracy: it may well have been at the point that the Western world stopped treating the idea of God as incontrovertible that Western discourse began to distinguish fact from the fantastic. "Hell is empty and all the devils are here," as a William Shakespeare character says in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623).

As has been mentioned elsewhere [see We Don't Go Back: A Personal Taxonomy of Folk Horror and Pagan Film #52: The Witch (2015) by Howard Ingham under links below], the Psychology of the way the family reacts to the strain they are under is entirely credible; it is the attachment of a supernatural explanation to realist verisimilitude that makes The VVitch seem conflicted. Three Algonquin tribespeople are glimpsed at the beginning of The VVitch: America's native population is neither seen nor heard from again. The VVitch, like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899; rev 1925) is a text about the unconscious vastation of a belief system that reduced entire continents to Slavery and one half of its own population to the status of chattels. [MD]

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