Monday, October 31, 2016

"The Witch" (2015)

12 Days of Halloween 2016 (12)

In 1630s New England, a man and his family are banished from a Puritan village due to some unnamed heresy. They gladly leave because they are certain that they are right and the village is wrong. They head out into the wilderness to build a farm and live the way they believe to be right. One day their teen-aged daughter is caring for her infant brother, playing peek-a-boo with him near the woods, when he is snatched. She does not see what takes him.

We do, though. It is a witch. She sacrifices the baby to make a flying ointment for herself.

This film is a spectacular exercise in period piece filmmaking. The sets, the costumes, the dialogue… it all feels like we have really been transported back 400 years. And the horror of the story lies in the isolation, the ignorance, and the religious uncertainty that the characters are drowning in. The family spirals downward after the baby is taken, but they were already doomed before the witch appeared. We never find out what heresy the father was accused of, but what we do see of his understanding of God is a scary extreme form of Calvinism where no one can ever know where they stand, and where grace and hope are replaced by fear and uncertainty.

We know that there really is a witch in this story, but we also see how the atmosphere of fear in the religion of these Puritans bred suspicion and backstabbing. Everybody was equally afraid of God and Satan, and were ready to see Satan’s work anywhere—even in their preschool children.

People wonder where God was in this story. Why Satan and the witches were able to destroy the family and God never lifted a finger to stop them. But we do see that the family had access to Scripture and could read. Perhaps the better questions are: why did the family leave the village and their church? Why did they fear the devil and the supernatural when their Bible told them they were nothing to fear? Why were they so self-assured and prideful when they clearly knew so little about their faith, or for that matter, how to survive on their own?

As stated, this family didn’t need witches to be doomed. Still, this is an incredibly well made, atmospheric, piece of drama. Not for those afraid of witches, though.

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