Film Review: The Witch (2015)

Released in 2015 in the US and 2016 in the UK, The Witch: A New England Folktale is soon to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, having been in theatres in March. Having heard very good things about this film from friends in the US, I finally have the time to review it here. The film introduces us to English colonists William and Katherine – a deeply religious Christian couple – and their five children in 1630s New England. Due to William’s conflict of religious conscience with what others in the colony believe, they are forced to leave and fend for themselves. In a time when greater numbers meant more safety, this combined with the very real danger that if their corn crop isn’t good enough they’ll probably starve come winter creates a tense set of circumstances.

Here at The Seventeenth Century Lady HQ, I tend to watch films set in the seventeenth century with my husband – someone who has very little knowledge of that time period – because it’s good to have that to contrast with one’s own views. He remarked halfway through the film that, “this doesn’t seem like a horror film, more like a drama”. But that’s just it, that’s part of the dark beauty of this story. The film’s most potent, visceral horror is left until the end, by which time the audience should have the same sense of palpable paranoia and fear that the characters are going through.

witch-01

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witchcraft and a general belief in the supernatural were real facts of life, and this included the belief that lycanthropy or werewolves existed [3]. If one’s crops failed, if a child grew poorly, if one’s cow was injured or dropped dead, a supernatural explanation was as realistic then as it’s unrealistic now. Witchcraft was a very serious matter indeed, which is why I featured it as Fact 24 in my book, The Stuarts in 100 Facts. The film’s tagline of “Evil takes many forms”, couldn’t be more perfect. The black goat which is shown on the cover is straight out of seventeenth-century notions of witches’ familiars. For example, Francesco Maria Guazzo‘s stated in his Compendium Maleficarum (1608):

The Devil manifests himself in many various forms of specters, such as dogs, cats, goats, oxen, men, women, or a horned owl. [1][2]

Historian H.R. Trevor-Roper stated that:

“The god of their (the witches’) worship, the Devil himself, who appeared sometimes as a big, black, bearded man, more often as a stinking goat, occasionally as a great toad.” [4]

I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this was a directorial debut by filmmaker Robert Eggers. There was nothing remotely amateur about this piece – it looked like it was done by someone with a great deal of experience. The script and the dialogue were impeccable, and frankly, the whole thing was more historically accurate than any film I’ve reviewed. You can tell they did a lot of research and it paid off. The acting, especially by Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, and Kate Dickie was realistic and believable. The soundtrack was minimal and unnerving – lots of shrieking women’s voices – reminiscent of 2001.

TSCL rating: 9/10 Highly recommended.

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[1] Guazzo, Francesco Maria. Compendium Maleficarum. 1608.
[2] Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. Hamlyn Publishing Group, Bungay, 1968. Page 190.
[3] Davidson, Jane P. Early Modern Supernatural: The Dark Side of European Culture, 1400–1700. Page 168.
[4] Trevor-Ropert, H.R. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A masterly study of Early Modern Europe in the grip of a collective psychosis. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1969.

Further reading:

  1. Borman, Tracy. Witches: James I and the English Witch-Hunts. Vintage Books, London, 2014.
  2. Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy. John Murray Publishers, London, 2006.
  3. Hopkins, Matthew. A Discoverie of Witches. Norfolk, 1647.
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Hear ye! 3 thoughts — so far — on “Film Review: The Witch (2015)”:

  1. Merrie Thornburg

    I saw this movie over the winter and it was, indeed, terrifying. It was, as if, I were transported back to this place and time. Well worth watching!

    Reply
  2. Annelisa

    Thank you, Andrea – I really want to watch this now! It sounds just up my street. Excellent review!
    (by the way, the video at the end has disappeared…says it doesn’t exist)

    Reply

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