Sometimes the best horror films seem to elude the classification of horror altogether, or at least make you question exactly what it is that distinguishes horror from other genres. Based on actual transcripts, legal documents and first-hand accounts, The Witch: A New England Folktale is one of those films. Revolving around a Puritan family who are cast out from their community and forced to forge a new life for themselves in the seventeenth-century wilderness, it’s more a particularly original and galvanising kind of period drama than a straight horror film. At the very least, it didn’t correspond to the horror film I was expecting from the trailer and promotional material, which was probably something like a backdated Blair Witch Project, although this is certainly the first film since then to really tap into the witch as a source of horror – quite extraordinary when you consider the extent of the vampire and werewolf industries – as well as a clear descendent of Blair Witch in the way it uses the Gothic legacy of the American Renaissance as a way of commenting upon and demonstrating digital culture.
Narrative-wise, it’s a remarkably elegant and economical film, and quite Puritan itself in the rigour with which it dwells on a single space and a single process. After finding his community too lax, a Puritan patriarch retreats even further into the wilderness with his family, as if to recapitulate the originary gesture of colonialism and manifest destiny. Finally, he settles upon a small clearing at the very cusp of the woods, which he proceeds to cultivate and develop as best he can, while tending to his wife and five children. While the film never leaves this claustrophobic space, the action doesn’t exactly feel circumscribed either, just because of how evocatively director Robert Eggers dwells upon the interface between the clearing and the woods, often cross-editing between a character’s face and the woods as if to evoke a kind of spiritual dialogue taking place between them that opens up onto other worlds and other possibilities. At the same time, the film is very preoccupied with the interfaces opened up during prayer, with the camera often focusing frontally on character’s faces as they offer up their supplications to the Almighty, and this tends to converge with the way in which the woods are framed, creating a profound sense of the permeability between natural and supernatural worlds, especially at this remotest of spiritual outposts.
In many ways, that sense of one-sided, spiritual dialogue – whether with the woods or through prayer – drives the film more than the actual, historical dialogue. At the very least, it renders actual dialogue pitifully incapable of dealing with the abduction of the family’s baby at the threshold of the woods, and the dawning suspicion that some supernatural entity emanating from the woods is infiltrating and infecting the other children as well. Although this entity is framed as a witch, and although we are given a glimpse of the witch very early in the film, the witch herself is more of a notional presence, which is not to say that she’s not real, exactly, but that she’s not different in kind or substance from the rest of the world within which the film takes place. For while a film like Blair Witch depends on the incongruity between the witch and the modern, secular world, part of what is so eerie about The Witch is the way in which it opts for a kind of Puritan realism, not just in terms of its sparseness and austerity, but in the way in which it subliminally and subtly slides us into the worldview of the Puritans, which turns out to be scarier than any single moment of horror, just because it’s a mindset that assumes that horror is perpetually looming and so always needs to be forestalled, averted or evaded.
In that sense, the film is less a horror film than a particularly original and authentic brand of period drama. Light years away from the allegorical and symbolic distance of The Crucible, as well as the backward glances of Poe and Hawthorne, the directors set out to craft a vision of Puritan America which is totally devoid of anachronism, which means crafting a world in which witchcraft isn’t incongruous or even surprising but an accepted part of everyday life. That makes the film terrifying in a quite original kind of way, with witchcraft almost figured as a symptom that could strike anyone at any time, but especially children, leading to some of the most incredibly corporeal, visceral and writhing performances from children than I have seen for some time. It is the young children, in particular, who carry the film – shot with the same lumbering, lopsided, eye-rolling rhythm of the farm animals who supposedly carry out the witch’s purpose, they exude the sheer contagion of horror as only very young children can. As in a folk tale, the scariest and most visceral moments are only alluded to, which means that it is usually the younger children’s responses that drive the action, especially their responses to the cautionary stories and folk tales that they are told by their parents and older siblings.
Of course, the fact that the film is so aligned with its subject matter doesn’t mean that it is incapable of critical reflection either. Time and again, it becomes clear that, within this Puritan context, witchcraft is more or less continuous with luxury, sensuality and – above all – female orgasm, although part of the brilliance of the film is that this doesn’t merely feel like a conceptual connection but actually converges into a single source of terror: by two-thirds of the way through, the sight of luxurious clothing carries as much supernatural heft as the depiction of actual witchcraft ceremonies. In part, that’s due to the exquisite cinematography, which might be described as off-naturalistic in the way in which it subsumes us into the naturalistic standards of an earlier time. From dawn to dusk, the action is shot in the same dull gloom – night is only really an intensified day – which seems right for a world lit largely by candelight and natural light. Granted, the days are not “realistically” sunlit in terms of our contemporary context, but the overall effect is to evoke the net loss of light in a world in which sources of light are so sparse and austere, especially at this very outpost or frontier of the Puritan project.
At the same time, it’s undeniable that the lighting scheme here also lends itself to the kinds of dim, muted tones typical of digital cinematography. It’s noticeable, then, that the film’s framing and editing is emphatically pre-digital in its compositions and mise-en-scene, which occasionally feel “photographic” in a classical sense, but more often than not recall the staid, awkward and slightly over-formal gestural and postural vocabulary of early American figure painting. Paradoxically, however, it’s this adherence to the past that allows the film to feel so present, since what Puritanism and digital culture share as a perceptual outlook is an awareness that the uncanny resides in the very act of perception itself. In their very different ways, Puritan and digital optics are haunted by the process of meditation – again, those frontal shots, with their sense of false transparency, feel so critical – and that connection is beautifully elaborated and enacted here.
It’s not surprising, then, that the film has been acclaimed by both historians of seventeenth-century American and self-identifying practising occultists, since there’s an attempt at perceptual veracity here that makes you realise how staid most period dramas are by comparison. Nowhere is that clearer than in the final few moments of the film – a witchcraft ceremony that is at once utterly unrealistic by contemporaries standards and yet is somehow shorn of any irrealism as well, a fitting end to a film in which the fantastic is so beautifully contextualised and naturalised so as to disperse and distribute horror across our entire perceptual field, even or especially as it is delivered via digital cinematography.