Monday, January 23, 2017

Dost hear that, yolk devils? My review of The Witch

Thomasin and Caleb at the brook

*** quite atrocious spoilers be found in this review ***

My sister was here visiting the week before Christmas, and we decided to do the very Victorian thing of indulging in a ghost story for the holidays. The idea of the movie The Witch appealed greatly to us. We are the descendants of Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced trial for witchcraft in Massachusetts in 1656 and again in 1674, decades before the Salem hysteria. She was found innocent both times. I'm also the author of The Witch's Trinity, a novel about medieval witchcraft—in fact, it was uncannily during the course of writing the novel that my mother learned of our connection to Mary Bliss Parsons.

We settled down to watch while my husband settled the kids to bed. We kept the sound low to not drift up to them, and I'll readily admit we have an elderly television, but even so it was astonishing how much of the movie we could not hear.

As in, we basically could have turned the sound off and gotten roughly the same amount of information.

It is not an exaggeration to say it was as if we watched a silent film with some atmospheric music and a bit of dialogue here and there.

We would periodically pause the movie and confer with each other about what we'd gleaned, like archeologists trying to reconstruct a pot out of potsherds. A typical exchange:

Sister: So, the mom thinks Thomasina stole her silver cup.
Me: Oh! Wow. I totally didn't get that.

We thought her name was Thomasina throughout the whole movie because we just couldn't hear.

Although I'm sure in real life, the actor who plays the father is considered to have a majestic voice, in this setting it registered as Grendel with a head cold.

The visuals were splendid enough to keep us going although I did ask my sister if she wanted to continue and she kind of shrugged. As the movie came to a close and the screen blacked out, I said to her, "If the credits start to roll now, I'm going to give the finger to the screen." The credits rolled, and I flipped the bird.

"That was pretty bad," she said. I felt doubly guilty because the night before, my husband had inflicted The Great Muppet Caper Movie on all of us.

She went to bed disgruntled, and I went to imdb and wikipedia to figure out what the heck we'd missed.

It turned out: a lot. Funnily enough, the dialogue actually was an important conveyor of plot!

I told her in the morning what I'd learned and we both decided we'd like to watch it again sometime with closed captioning turned on.

Part Two

Fast forward a few weeks. I watched the movie again on Friday the 13th (of January) with captions turned on. I watched on my Kindle screen in bed.

The movie vastly improved, but still feels like it didn't accomplish everything it might've. As a person whose creative work is reviewed online, I know how much a review can sting (right now on Amazon, the first review in the queue for one of my novels is one-star and says nothing more than "Awful"). So I apologize in advance, and will add that I feel the acting in this movie was superb. Every single actor was riveting, credible. The cinematography was incredible, the costuming and sets powerful, I'm not sure how to judge directing, but that seemed very well done too! I think the weak link here was the script.

Things the script did right:
  • Authentically conveyed the language of people newly arrived from England to the New World
  • Created timed suspense over secrets family members had been keeping from each other (the precious cup, the idea of placing Thomasin with another family)
  • Authentically conveyed a family working together to create subsistence in a harsh environment

Things the script could've done better:
Created more horror.

When I think about narrative arc, it's about introducing trouble, which builds and builds until some climactic event happens. In this movie, the worst thing that happens takes place in the first eight minutes.

Where do we go from there? There's quite literally nothing worse than that old woman using her child-sized mortar and pestle. Or the way her hands travel over his naked body (disturbing on multiple levels) before the knife glints in the shot.

Worse, we know right away that there are witches. This is not a story the baby comes back and tells the family—we see it as "objective" observers, and thus it must be true and must be happening.

I was thinking, what if the two abductions of the story were reversed? Caleb disappears first, and we can still see the transformed woman beckoning him into her embrace, but we can wonder if he is really seeing what he thinks he is. It would create a helpful ambiguity. Maybe he's eaten ergot bread or is growing into mental imbalance as well as puberty...

Then, if the baby disappeared after Caleb, we would have some sort of reference point for what we feared would happen to him: and then what really does would leave us far more shocked and upset.

And by the way, the shot of the seductive woman embracing Caleb: it was unclear to me whether the crone's arm that grabs him was her arm or that of someone standing behind her. If the former, the angle was a little off somehow.

Mother and twins, Thomasin in the background

Questions the movie didn't answer for me even upon two viewings:
1. Did the family come across an already-existing farm or build one? They first survey an empty field in front of the "evil tree" but when we next see the complex, the viewpoint has changed, so it's unclear whether it was built on the same stretch of land. If the farm was already built, there's some instant backstory about whether this evil property continues a cycle of luring in settlers. But (thinking aloud here), I think the plantation in the beginning that expels them must've been Plimouth, and therefore there probably weren't too many other folks preceding them into the wilderness.

2. What is the thinking with that tree? Source of power? Source of broomsticks? It features menacingly in several shots, but we don't learn why it is a "featured" tree.

3. What happened to the twins? At the end, the shed has been ripped apart and the two goats (other than Black Philip) lie half-eaten. I don't know if the children were abducted like Caleb was (for what purpose, then?) or like the baby was (aren't they too old to be flying ointment material?). I wondered if Thomasin would find them at the witch's cabal but it looked to be only grown women there.

4. Why would Thomasin accept the offer of an entity that killed everyone in her family? I'd need to see some proof of that "living deliciously" because it kind of seemed like the witch (es?) lived in a nasty little hovel.

I liked thinking about what would have happened if the mother had succeeded in strangling Thomasin. Would she then be offered the book to sign and the chance to join the cabal in the woods? I assume, though, that Thomasin was selected because of her beauty and nubility.

Continuity: We never see Thomasin clean her face but when she awakes there is no blood around her mouth, only on her neck and chest.

This movie takes all the ignorant, superstitious things people believed about witches back then and made them true. I'm sure some women and men who faced the noose or the stake are spinning in their graves right now.

I didn't find the movie scary but I found it somewhat haunting; it's a compliment that I wanted to watch it a second time. I loved its promise, and I wish it could've offered a stronger build-up of tension and mounting horror.

The title of my post comes from movie dialogue: I thought it was pretty awesome. That's what the father calls the twins when he suspects they may be witches.

. . . .


Don said...

I saw a preview once. I liked the way it looked. But good horror is hard to do. They would do better to put the can in a desk drawer for six months and look at it again, but no studio ever goes for that.

Erika M said...

Interesting notion, to put aside and let it marinate a little bit. Probably many novelists could benefit from that too...