Mysterious America Reviews

The Witch: A New-England Folktale

The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015) is an entertaining, wonderfully atmospheric and historically accurate take on witch mythology in colonial New England. Plenty of films claim historic accuracy, but you rarely see it. Mel Gibson is notorious for his pseudo historical (but highly entertaining) historical fiction movies. The Witch, though a semi-low budget horror film, puts those to shame. Listen to what the director says about his attention to detail.

“I am positive it is the most accurate portrayal of this period in American history on screen. We went to such lengths to make it so,” writer-director Robert Eggers told the LA Times earlier this year. “Everything with the farmstead that we built, everything that you see on-screen is made from the correct building materials that would have been used at the time. Most often we used the traditional tools and techniques to create these objects. And the clothing is hand stitched based on extant clothing.”

Ok, except the nails, which are round and not square like they would have been in the seventeenth century.

0014_title2Nitpickers have also gone after the filmmaker’s stylized title. Cinema Sins’ claim that the digraph “VV” fell out of use after the sixteenth century (The Witch is set in the seventeenth century), and therefore the stylized use of VV in the title is inaccurate, is only partly true. The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, published in 1693, clearly shows witch spelled with a digraph. However, it is a “double U,” or UU. Several other pamphlets, shown here, from 1643 and 1645, both show witch spelled “V Vitch,” just like the film title. Printing at the time was more art than science, and printers chose when to use the modern W or the older VV or UU.

Even the witch lore is highly accurate to the seventeenth century, from using baby’s blood as flying ointment, to enchanted animals cursing weapons in order to slip away unharmed. And, of course, writing one’s name in blood in the Devil’s book, creepily portrayed by a black goat. Witches were believed to cause their victims to vomit foreign objects, shown when the family’s son, Caleb is being tormented and spits up an apple. There are no magic wands, pointy hats, or broomsticks here.

Witches represented a malevolent force in the natural and social order, destroying relationships between neighbors and family members. In The Witch, tragedies and minor transgressions gradually unravel the family and undermine the trust that held them together. The tension is palpable as they slowly turn on each other, all while apparently under supernatural assault. The terror comes from knowing this threat destroys from within as well as from without.

In many ways The Witch reminds me of Eyes of Fire (1983), in which a group of religious dissenters flee to the wilderness only to face assault by supernatural forces in colonial New England. (Apparently I’m not the only one who noticed a similarity) There’s something primordial about the hostility of nature, survival, and the union of wood and spirit. The idea that nature is foreign and hostile to man appeals to our basest instincts.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Jay from RedLetterMedia that The Witch is the best film to hit theaters in 2016, but it’s definitely the best horror movie to come out for a while. It’s an incredible first film for writer-director Robert Eggers. I just hope he isn’t another M. Night Shyamalan, whose breakout film The Sixth Sense revolutionized the genre, but he went on to make complete garbage for the rest of his career.

2 replies on “The Witch: A New-England Folktale”

Interesting observation, but historians have questioned use of the Malleus Maleficarum in an official capacity by the Church. A lot of clergy thought Heinrich Kramer was a nut. The Witch strictly reflects Protestant beliefs regarding witchcraft, particularly Puritans

Liked by 1 person

Great review Michael. Its really a solid piece of history embedded in an a thrilling story. My own review observed: “It’s a film with echoes of Arthur Miller’s iconic 1953 play and 1996 film The Crucible about the mass hysteria generated by religious zealotry in the 17th century Puritan colonies of America. The bigger history links to tens of thousands of invariably female ‘witches’ who were publicly executed from the 15th to the early 19th centuries across different parts of the world in the name of religion (see Malleus Maleficarum, the Papal decree authorizing the killings).”


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