The Witch (2015)

I finally got around to seeing The Witch, courtesy of an Amazon gift card. While I’m glad I watched it, I’m also glad I was spending someone else’s money. But hang on now, fella, it’s not all bad. This is an interesting movie that deserves a lot of credit for doing things differently. But also other words, which you may now proceed to read!

The film follows a family in colonial America who’ve run afoul of the local churchly authorities. They go into semi-voluntary exile in the New England wilderness, for reasons not fully spelled out but apparently relating to how tightly they felt their shoes and hats should be buckled, or whatever Puritans argued about. Alas, no one told father William, played by the incomparably gravel-voiced Ralph Ineson, that to live in said wilderness would require skills like hunting and farming, and that sometimes putting seeds in the ground and screaming your iniquities unto God is not enough to stave off death-by-no-food. But I jest. It’s not really William’s fault, but the family’s farm fails (alliteration!) and they’re struggling to get by.

One day adolescent daughter Thomasin is minding baby Sam when the wee tyke is spirited away in an instant, seemingly by supernatural forces. This is the start of the Weird Stuff, and like most contemporary horror, things are deliberately ambiguous–is it witchcraft, or just misfortunte?–until the final act. Suspicion falls on Thomasin almost immediately, with mother Katherine blaming her for the baby’s disappearance; but it really crystallizes when her young siblings Mercy and Jonas accuse Thomasin of witchery directly.

thewitch1

Refreshingly, we do know, pretty much immediately, that there is in fact a witch: we see her, and Sam’s unfortunate fate, right after the baby’s disappearance. (This all happens in the first ten minutes of the film, so it’s really not a spoiler.) What we don’t know is to what extent, if any, the other Weird Stuff is due to witchcraft, whether witchcraft has actually corrupted the younger members of the family, if Thomasin is somehow connected to it, or if Jonas and Mercy, who regularly hold whispered conversations with their black goat, have themselves been bewitched. It’s also not initially clear if the witchcraft is actually efficacious–that is, if there’s actually something supernatural going on. The result of all this doubt is a Crucible-esque cauldron (ho ho!) of paranoia and recrimination.

Most of the drama in the film comes from the tensions between Thomasin, Katherine, and Jonas and Mercy, with poor William left as a kind of hapless mediator. When the children overhear the parents talking about sending Thomasin into servitude with another family as a way of making ends meet, brother Caleb resolves to go into town on some errand which he feels will save her (we don’t ever learn precisely what). Thomasin insists on going too, but they get separated, and when only Thomasin returns to the farm, her situations goes from bad to, mmmwitch. Mmmworse? Mmmmsomething.

The good here is really good: the whole cast does a pretty bangup job, with Ineson excelling as the much put-upon William, and the young and wonderfully-named Harvey Scrimshaw giving a particularly strong performance in what was surely the most difficult role of the film. And the dialogue is entirely old-timey colonial-era English (though I can’t comment on its accuracy), which must have made it especially difficult. The costumes and set design are likewise excellent, with everything pretty much exactly resembling the colonial “living villages” you can see in many places in the former colonies where they reenact 17th-century life.

thewitch3

But there’s bad too. “Overwrought” is kind of a go-to word of mine, which I like because it conveys so much so efficiently: it implies an attempt at quality, even loving attention to detail, but also suggests that things went a bit too far. This film is overwrought in the truest sense of simply trying to do too much. The language is novel and initially interesting, but ultimately gimmicky and distracting. The grayed-out color palette definitely makes things seem bleak and depressing, but we’ve seen it too many times for it to maintain the evocative power the filmmakers seem to have been going for here. And the final act, where the Weird Stuff escalates–particularly the closing, post-climax scenes–are simply goofy, dispelling any sense of otherworldly dread the film may have established in earlier scenes by resorting to uninspired effects and discordant music. The final ten minutes or so remind me of nothing so much as Rosemary’s Baby with its mod, hyperweird, almost-comedy take on horror. This might have been a good thing if the tone was consistent throughout, but as it is it’s too much of a contrast with the rest of the film.

A final note: the film was billed as a “folktale.” In fact the title sequence reads: “The Witch: A New England Folktale.” You’ll recall that folklorists generally have some fairly specific meanings in mind when they use genre terms. In the strictest sense, “folktale” doesn’t really seem to fit. This is fine: words get used in different ways by different people. I’m not a stickler for genre; in fact I think it’s basically useless as a scholarly concept and ignores the roles of traditional narrative in people’s real lives. But maybe the best word for a film like this (time for a shameless plug) would be folkloresque. At any rate, all of this just shows how arbitrary definitions of things really are. None of it really matters. But it’s interesting to talk about.

In the end, The Witch is a reasonably solid entry in the under-utilized witchcraft subgenre that is at times difficult to watch–not because of its content, but because of its pacing, language, and some directorial decisions like the aforementioned use of effects. But to its credit, where it errs, it generally errs for the right reasons.

icecream3

Pay the Ghost (2015): Or, the Blair Witch Wicker Man Tooth Fairy Project

Folklorist Mikel J. Koven has written about something he calls the “folklore fallacy” in horror films, which he defines as “the indiscriminate inclusion of any and all forms of ‘folklore’ into the film’s diegetic mix.” [1] In other words, filmmakers often skim the surface of real-world folklore, gather together everything that seems “folky,” and throw it on in there because, you know. Hollywood.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect Koven would agree). In our book The Folkloresque we address this issue from a different perspective, trying to understand why filmmakers (and authors, and game designers) use these elements in this way. It’s certainly a logical decision, in a genre that deals with ghosts, to draw on real-world traditions of ghosts (or whatever). But on the other hand, when people aren’t careful, they end up saying silly things like “the Celtic goddess” and depicting “Celtic” celebrations in a way that the average viewer might assume has some basis in reality. So the issue is not one of respect for the source material, per se; rather it’s about the kind of authority with which we tend to invest the medium of film. This is the point Koven makes in his analysis of The Wicker Man, a goofy-ass movie to be sure, and one that makes uncritical use of all kinds of nominally “Celtic” stuff.

Hmm, how can I connect all that to the movie review I’m supposed to be doing…? Let’s see… Wicker Man… Wicker Man… Koven’s talking about the original, but of course we’re all familiar with the hilariously amazing Nic Cage remake. And guess what! Nic Cage is also in Pay the Ghost! Brilliant!

In this film, Nic Cage plays Mike Lawford, a professor (of English?) at an unnamed-but-probably-Columbia university in New York. He’s struggling to balance family obligations with the unreasonable workload placed on tenure-track faculty (hah!). Finally, on Halloween, he gets notice that his department has granted him tenure, but the good news is spoiled when his son Charlie disappears from a local street festival.

Of course, the audience knows that Charlie was in fact abducted by some sort of evil spirit. Naturally Mike’s wife Kristen blames him, and they separate. Jump to a year later, and Mike’s living alone in a crummy apartment, trying to piece together the mystery of his son’s disappearance. He eventually concludes, after some Weird Stuff Happens, that Charlie’s disappearance was supernatural in nature, and sets out to convince his estranged wife of this fact.

Perhaps surprisingly, the movie starts off pretty well. It sets itself up as a slow-moving supernatural thriller, with the added bonus of Nic Cage doing whatever it is that Nic Cage does. Kristen is played by Sarah Wayne Callies, perhaps best known as Lori from The Walking Dead, and she gives probably the film’s best performance as a desperate, grieving mother. Some minor plot holes aside, it looks at the outset like another quiet creeper in the vein of The Woman in Black, heavily focused on the idea of parenthood (and, later, maternity in particular) and the fears that often accompany it.

PaytheGhost3

“Vaccines are a lie! Beware of autism! Use cloth diapers! Boogedy-boo!”

Things fall apart about midway through, when we start to see more of the ghost, and all kinds of random “Celtic” elements start popping up. Kristen sees a Razor scooter move by itself and decides instantaneously that Mike was right about Charlie’s supernatural abduction. Mike determines that a lot of other children have gone missing on Halloween, and unlike kids abducted on most other days of the year, these kids have mostly remained missing. So Mike finds the address of another kid who went missing and tracks down the father, now a grieving junky, who confirms that his child spouted some nonsense about “paying the ghost” before disappearing–just like Charlie did. Research!

This thinnest of leads having panned out, and with Kristen now back on his side, Mike eventually learns (research again!) that the ghost who took his son is the spirit of an Irish settler in New York who was burned as a witch because of course. Her children were also burned, for some reason, and now she kidnaps kids every Halloween to, you know, get back at those guys who died three hundred years ago (ghost logic).

PaytheGhost2

Seconds later she was joined by Spawn, Batman, Spider-Man and two of the Ninja Turtles.

The discovery of the “Celtic” connection was facilitated by Kristen, who, briefly possessed by Charlie’s spirit, carved a “Celtic” symbol on her own arm. (Apparently writing on paper would have been too banal.) This prompts a brief research (!) sequence, where Mike’s professor pal helps them uncover the truth of the Irish woman’s fate and blah blah blah. It went off the rails here, see. Just, ugh. They learn of a community of Irish Americans who still celebrate Samhain according to the “Celtic tradition,” and off they go because of course they do.

This is Koven’s “folklore fallacy” in full swing, and here it is a bad thing because in this particular work it’s lazy, inaccurate, mildly ethnically insensitive, and boring. The symbol on Kristen’s arm is connected to a “Celtic goddess” whose involvement is really not clear–the villainous ghost is precisely that, the spirit of a dead human, not an unnamed inhuman spirit–and seems almost to be included as an afterthought. Not only is “Celtic” a disputed term, but the invocation of a randomĀ  and unnamed “Celtic goddess” is bizarre (there were so many to choose from). And the film’s depiction of modern-day Irish Americans half-assedly enacting a poorly-understood pre-Christian tradition makes my skin crawl. (Although in fairness, when Mike starts grilling the head druidess about the goddess connection, she finally admits, “I’m just a school teacher from Bayside.” So, I guess, kudos for irony?)

Paytheghost4

Pictured: Irishness.

The final act has Mike crossing a literal bridge to the otherworld (because of course it’s in New York), rescuing Charlie and some other abducted kids, and running back across the bridge just in time for a happy ending. By this point things have become so eye-rollingly hammy that it’s impossible to care, which is really a shame given the film’s untapped potential. Worst of all, it doesn’t even ascend to the Wicker Man‘s level of Caginess. It seems like even Nic was too bored with the script to manage his usual level of amazing lunacy.

PaytheGhost1

Though God knows he tried.

This one is ultimately a miss, obviously. Partly it’s because of how research works. Research is really hard. It took me a lot of years of over-priced institutional learnin’ to realize how hard it actually is. I used to be primarily interested in Celtic stuff myself, and did some shoddy work with it; but finally I realized that I lacked the breadth of knowledge (history, archaeology, linguistics) andĀ energy necessary to pursue that material. But, as Koven notes in his work on the Wicker Man, filmmakers aren’t really concerned with “anthropological verisimilitude” [2]–i.e., accuracy. And they don’t necessarily need to be. On the other hand, a little bit more time spent on the basics would go a long way.

Also, you know, not using a ton of bland, recycled horror tropes. That would also help.

2scoops


Notes

[1] Mikel J. Koven, Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends (Lanham, MD; Toronto; Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 34.

[2] Ibid, 28.