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  Witch, The Into The Woods
Year: 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Julian Richings, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Wahab Chaudhry, Viv Moore, Karen Kaeja, Brandy Leary, R. Hope Terry, Carrie Eklund, Madlen Sopadzhiyan
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is the 16th Century and the Puritans have left England to travel across the Atlantic to the New World, where they hope they can worship their Christian God their way, without what to them are the far too relaxed and liberal ways of the society they have left behind. However, even for some of those pilgrims the fresh land is just not strict enough, and one such man, William (Ralph Ineson) has been accused of preaching falsely when he believes he is actually telling of the true Word of God; for this he is banished, or at least he agrees to leave before he can be punished, so takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their family of five children to a wilderness where they can live their lives in righteous peace...

But pride before a fall and all that, so The Witch sets up its characters and more or less stuck with the family for the duration, with occasional diversions so we could see there were others in the vicinity they had not bargained for. Or were there? Was there in fact the effects of a religious mania warping their perceptions, so that they had gone to such an extreme of piety that they could find no others to criticise but themselves, and self-destruction was all that was left for them as they accuse their family of not being up to the tenets of their faith and the high ideals that come with them, then finally turn that merciless gaze inwards? Or as the final scenes show, could there be an alternative?

Director and writer Robert Eggers proudly proclaimed that he had drawn this tale from the writings of the period it was set, around the era of the initial witch panic in America where the whole notion of holier than thou was sent plummeting into the depths of scapegoating and baseless prejudice, bringing about eventually the more notorious Salem Witch Trials that were evoked in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. That play had deliberate echoes of the political situation of the United States at the time it was penned, but sadly such religious and political twisting of the hearts and minds of the nation was not going to go out of fashion any time soon, so it was that The Witch came across as at once part of a distant past yet worryingly contemporary.

Another part of the past Eggers sought to revive was the spate of rural horror that emerged from Europe in the sixties into the seventies, something Ben Wheatley had harked back to with the equally obscure A Field in England, you know the type of thing, The Wicker Man was the most celebrated but Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw looked to be influences as well, at a time when getting back to nature was the in thing. Trouble with that is, you may want to get back to nature but nature may not want you back, and so it is William finds his crops failing and as his eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is unfairly landed with all of the blame, points out at the height of her doubt and criticism, all he's really been good for is chopping wood for the fire, a possible reference to The Amityville Horror into the bargain.

Anything like optimism has been soured by the father's religious beliefs that corrupt what could have been a successful try at making it in a new land with the help of those fellow settlers, only since they failed to live up to his ludicrously high ideals, and that's saying something for a community of Puritans, he has committed his own sin, that of arrogance that he knew best, indeed that he knew the deity better than anyone else around. So where does this leave the witch of the title? Something spirits the infant away when Thomasin is playing with him, though it could have been a wolf as William suspects, but what if there were figures in the woods practicing the dark arts? Every religion needs some villains, or at least an antagonist, to paint themselves in a favourable light, and so it is the nightmare dreamt up by the pilgrims that witchcraft was present there, and had to be wiped out with the most aggressive methods possible, ironically seem to have come true. Mind you, Eggers kept the apparitions ambiguous, suggesting a mania had settled on the family, yet also that there could be a goat-possessing, fever-inducing, bearings-confusing and even breast-eating malevolence abroad in that forest. It was up to you to decide which. Or witch. Alarming music by Mark Korven.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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