Two Cranky Guys and a Gal on “The Witch”
Bruce Fretts: Ain’t that a Witch? I’m a big chicken when it comes to seeing horror movies, so I recruited two of my bravest friends (and fellow Entertainment Weekly alums), historical novelist Nancy Bilyeau and Watson Adventures scavenger hunter/my former Two Cranky Guys blogging partner Bret Watson, to accompany me for a viewing of The Witch, the critically acclaimed new 17th century shocker.
Nancy : I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat in such a state of sustained dread.
Bret: I would glance over at Nancy, and she would have her hands braced against her chin and covering her face, and I was like, “Which movie is she watching?”
Bruce: Apparently, audiences hated it, because it got a C-/D+ from Cinemascore. I think the core horror audience was disappointed because it’s not a traditional horror movie. Which is why I liked it.
Nancy: It’s about a family driven out of Paradise…
Bret: Immediately she lays into the symbolism!
Nancy: Well, if you can call a 17th century plantation Paradise. But it was full of symbols and themes. The father would not shut up about his religious views that were even more extreme than the Puritans’. So rather than tow the line, he decided to take his entire family…
Bruce: Which includes his wife and five kids: a pubescent daughter and son, twin toddlers and a newborn baby.
Nancy: …to live on the edge of the woods, where the sun never came out.
Bret: Their real estate was listed as “witch-adjacent.”
Nancy: And the movie was about the deterioration of this family from spookiness and stress into horrible death.
Bruce: It begins with the newborn disappearing. The teenage daughter is playing peekaboo with him, and when she opens her eyes, he’s gone, and we don’t know if he was taken by a wolf or a witch or what. To me, the movie was about how horrible living conditions were for people in that time and place, especially if they weren’t part of a community, because of child deaths, bad crops—the father is the worst farmer ever.
Nancy: And he can’t hunt.
Bruce: All he can do is chop wood. He’s building this giant woodpile, for no reason.
Bret: But boy, can he sermonize!
Bruce: When you add the element of religious extremism to this stressful environment, things really start to go wrong. Everyone gets paranoid about who’s causing these things to happen, who might be a witch, and who’s not faithful enough.
Bret: The plot was basically: Family moves near witch, and witch systematically kills almost all of them.
Bruce: I thought there was a lot more going on. We’re not even sure there was a witch. It all could have been a delusion.
Nancy: There’s a tradition…
Bret: …of my not liking horror movies?
Nancy: No, of stories about young women, between the ages of 14 and early 20s, who are the focus of obsessive fear.
Bruce: Like The Crucible?
Nancy: Yes, and also The Turn of the Screw. I wasn’t sure where this fell on the continuum between The Crucible—where there are no witches, just hysterical girls, and it’s all about politics—and on the other end, Rosemary’s Baby, where the devil and witches really exist.
Bruce: Well, there is a Satanic talking goat, Black Phillip, who was my favorite character. But you don’t see the goat’s lips move, so it might just be a hallucination in the mind of one of the characters. But the scariest characters are the twins. Why are twins inherently creepy? Is it because of Kubrickian image of the twins from The Shining is seared into our minds?
Nancy: Nobody likes twins! Nobody can handle them.
Bret: It’s because within the family, they’re their own little clique. They have their own language. I have twin sisters. And they have a black goat that speaks in the night.
Nancy: One of the reasons people might not have liked the movie—even though I loved it—is because they want to have the fantasy of Thanksgiving and the happy Puritans sitting with the Indians and having a bounty. And these were hardcore angry religious fanatics.
Bruce: Living in very harsh conditions.
Nancy: And they were hard on women.
Bret: They were hard on everybody.
Bruce: And they didn’t like having hard-ons. The NYC audience we saw it with were incredibly quiet through the whole movie. There were a few gasps, but no laughter, not even of the nervous kind. It seemed like the film had us, if you will, under its spell.
Bret: I always look at horror movies from an arm’s length. I was noticing things like, “Gee, for a family in the wilderness, they sure have a lot of candles. Why do they have four candles burning at the dinner table? They’re squandering their candles!”
Nancy: You’re protesting too much. You were more scared than either of us, so you distanced yourself through cynicism.
Bruce: There are some deeply haunting images in the film, like when the mother apparently hallucinates that she’s reunited with her dead newborn son and breastfeeds him, and then we realize it’s a crow that’s pecking at her bloody nipple.
Bret: Well, we’ve all been there.
Nancy: That was really primal, scary and horrible.
Bruce: It’s like something out of a Munch painting.
Bret: Or Bosch, going with the Medieval feel of the movie.
Nancy: The actress who plays the mother, Kate Dickie, is on Game of Thrones.
Bruce: Is she? I didn’t recognize any of the actors, and I liked that. If it had been, say, Bruce Willis playing the father, that would’ve taken me out of the story. The actor who played him, Ralph Ineson, kind of looked like a really depressed Jim Henson. He had the perfect dour Puritanical face.
Bret: He looked like a German Renaissance Jesus.
Nancy: The actress who played the teen daughter, Anya Taylor-Joy, was a touch too pretty for that family.
Bret: She looked like a young Claire Danes in My So-Called Puritan Life.
Nancy: I just don’t know if you’d have that great skin and hair back then with no access to fish oil.
Bret: The movie was well-made, but it felt kind of draggy. I kept looking at my watch: “Jesus, come for me, please!”
Bruce: I was riveted by it. I was surprised when it ended because it only felt like 45 minutes or an hour.
Bret: It didn’t involve me. It’s not the movie’s fault. I’m just not into horror movies.
Nancy: It’s not you, it’s me? It got to me as a mother—what it did to the children was so primal—and as someone who knows extremist Christians, and as someone who’s had a fear of financial destitution. All those things drove me into the story and made me feel terrified.
Bret: And you own a goat farm.
Nancy: My one criticism is that there’s also an evil rabbit as well as the goat in the movie. You’ve got to pick one animal, and a rabbit isn’t scary enough.
Bret: The rabbit was there to look cute and lead them into the woods. You wouldn’t follow a goat into the woods.
Bruce: Depends on how lonely I am.