Although they dip into a different well of primal emotion and reflexive response, the best horror films are of a kind with the greatest masterpieces in any genre. At the risk of lacking caginess, all are defined by a duality: first, content is sublimated into the higher level of form and style, and secondly, expression and meaning is only tentatively tied to the nominal diegesis of the narrative. So the greatest horror film of the 1930s, The Bride of Frankenstein, relies on theatrical gesticulations of tone to express notions of disarmingly innocent outsider desire struggling to come to terms with a world suddenly impressing itself onto the mind (in doing so, moving far beyond the more obvious questions of homosexual impulse as one facet of desire and outsider status).
Likewise, the masterpiece of ’40s horror, Cat People, hop-scotches between languid, lyrical impressionism and rabid, animalistic gestures to not only tackle gender but to invoke notions of repressed urges of all kinds. Night of the Hunter, the most wonderful horror flick of the ’50s, functions specifically as an expression of Faulkneresque Southern life and more generally as an externalization of the imaginative space of childhood instability. Don’t Look Now (the best horror of the ’70s) is a discursive question mark where the serpentine mise en scene and the transgressive editing rhythms interrogate inquisitive feelings about trauma and the temporally fluid human mind. So on and so on…
The same applies to the great modern horrors, of which The Witch stands in increasingly amicable, vaunted company with the likes of Under the Skin, The Babadook, or It Follows. Great horror is played in the minor key of fear, sure, but the symphony of the genre is no fundamentally different from the music played by Bergman, Welles, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Fellini or whoever your auteur of choice is. Marry form to content, and articulate a notion of imagination or experience that transcends and short circuits notions of character, narrative, or diegesis, and you’ve got a genre-agnostic masterpiece on your hands. Badda-bing, badda-doom.
Now, The Witch isn’t a to-the-bone masterpiece, but any sensible viewer grades modern horror on a curve (even if the modern realm requires less preferential treatment with each passing year). But the auteur claim isn’t wishful thinking; Robert Eggers’ debut descends into the atavistic fever swamp of American folklore and tacitly suggests the puritanical European qualities of their life by pursuing a Bergmanesque Euro-art style. Chilly shivers of mental oppression quietly erupt in panic-filled, volcanic eviscerations of original sin as Eggers, Jarin Blaschke’s baleful and doleful cinematography in tow, deconstructs the dueling early American fears of unrepressed feminine sexual awakening and a cascading, unknown landscape left untamed by man.
Trapping youthful Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in between the domineering rock of her family’s dictatorial Christian morals and the hard place of the malevolent New England forest, Eggers’ begins his early-Americana mood piece with the girls’ family excommunicated from their Puritan village in 1630 New England. After a hearty day’s ride, they set up shop in a patch of bucolic, verdant pasture lingered over by a forested hearth of a surreptitious, duplicitous growth. The forest marks not only the geographic limits of settler American society at the time but the imminent ideological threat of unthreshed American land waiting to be overtaken by white men like Tomasin’s father. With the family’s dogma ultimately rooted in the the earliest variant of Western mythology and Manifest Destiny, the subfuscous shield of nature hanging over the film plays like a sepulcher to the American Dream before it was even truly bred.
The omnipresent weight of the land coagulates with the similar import of the untamed woman who resides within the darkest, least tamed regions of the space. Both reflect a threat to the masculine structures of American life than and now, and Eggers’ film boldly explores those threats not as superficial demons but as lurking, unconquered ideas – open, public space owned by no one and open, uncontrolled women who exhibits their own agency – that American men have spent centuries clamping down on. The terrors of The Witch are nothing less than the horrors of the American project, and the fears of the American status quo. The 400 years past setting only illuminates how veracious the themes still are today.
Eggers deserves credit for situating the central family in the slow-burn without inherently denying the more carnal pleasures of supernatural beckoning. Although Tomasin’s family suspects her of reprobate status, the presence of an honest-to-god witch skulking about the forest is never in question, allowing Eggers to indulge in gooier horror pleasures without sacrificing the autumnal gloom encrusted in the heart of the film. Admittedly, although the Bergman-infused aesthetic canvas – lateral landscapes dwarfing frail humans dripping down below the frame – serves the encroaching dismal solemnity of the film well, it is a little too redolent of better art house features of decades past to truly invigorate to the fullest extent. Eggers’ style is cohesive, but many of the most intoxicating films revel in their lack of cohesion – dig horror enthusiast Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and especially A Field in England for works that stitch together gallows absurdity and haphazard levity into their bruised art cinema bonafides. The monochromatic texture of the piece never flatlines, but let’s hope that Eggers isn’t a one-trick pony.
One suspects, on the evidence of The Witch’s transcendent finale, Eggers has more up his sleeve that a rainbow of slate grey though. Freed from her family’s constricting gasps of Old Testament doctrine, Tomasin’s tragedy belies a freedom in finally wandering into the wide open forest of American landscape unchained by the corresponding ideological tenants that might oppress that land. In a resplendent, crimson-fired finale, Eggers unleashes a font of teenage awakening that elevates into a maelstrom of luminescence and no-longer-repressed energy and feminine agency, a sudden eruption of social emancipation from domesticity imaged as a final escape from the cinematic corridor of restraint. The film’s occasional flutters of hag horror coalesce into a feminist tract that gallantly refuses to simply critique the domineering social doctrine of American life. Instead, in marinating the supernatural in a transgressive bayou of early backwoods Americana, The Witch treats the reality of its namesake horror seriously and constructs an alternative vision as well. It proposes that, in a world beset by antediluvian moorings and oppressive gendered constructs, a commune of witches as a fringe-dwelling utopia for social outsiders isn’t all that bad after all.