Review: The Witch

At any moment in human history, no matter how civilized we may think we are, dark woods have always had a deep capacity to scare the hell out of us. Lars von Trier was not wrong in his observance that “Nature is Satan’s church,” insofar as that our fears rule us when we are alone in any unfettered wilderness. Long, uncomfortable zooms into the black, endless trees vis-a-vis handsome camera-work is merely the tip of buried dread from first time director Robert Eggers. His previous work as a production designer serves him well in making such a small and insular movie, pretty much a single location shoot, The Witch, feel portentous and unfathomably large. You do not view the film so much bear witness to this family on the brink.

Set in early 17th century New England, we are introduced to the pious, yet insolent, patriarch of the film’s puritan family, William, and his row with the local clergy; of whom he deems not strict enough (or perhaps corrupt) in how they preach and practice the scripture. With more than a bit of self-importance and rage, he packs up his wife, Katherine, along with their five children, and sets out to forge his own homestead outside the (relative) safety of the muddy roads and towns walls. United in faith, they will conquer this wilderness; it will not consume them.

What ensues is a slow-burn, household collapse in the crucible of pilgrim stress: Failed crops, religious fervour and superstition, along with a healthy portion of hypocrisy grimly test familial and spiritual bonds. Drama and domestic minutiae are placed first and foremost over genre tropes, albeit these are far from absent, lurking on the periphery almost waiting to pounce. Staying true to accounts of the time period, with a taste for ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ on the tongue, the film is earnest in its presentation, laying itself open to easy mockery from those who do not synchronize up with its particular vibrations. The Witch reminded me immensely of James Marsh’s wonderfully sinister (and sorely unappreciated) Wisconsin Death Trip, a documentary re-enactment of newspaper clippings and letters from a mid-western town that went inexplicably mad in the 19th century; a fever dream with no answers. Eggers is slightly more pragmatic in his approach, although I remain somewhat unconvinced that films like this benefit from answers. (see also, Ti West’s House of the Devil.)

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Trailer: The Witch

As February theatrical release of The Witch edges closer, A24 has cut a tight, dread-laced new trailer with an eye for showing off the “R” rated films exceptional production design and commitment to period storytelling. It is disturbing in the same way old photos can be disturbing. When you consider the period language of America in the 17th Century, the off-kilter dynamics of a family being crushed under the anxiety of superstitions and isolation in the New World, and director Robert Egger’s particular knack for shooting animal husbandry in the creepiest way possible – all of these things key strengths of the actual film – you’ve got an exceptional piece of honest marketing.

New England, 1630. Upon threat of banishment by the church, an English farmer leaves his colonial plantation, relocating his wife and five children to a remote plot of land on the edge of an ominous forest – within which lurks an unknown evil. Strange and unsettling things begin to happen almost immediately – animals turn malevolent, crops fail, and one child disappears as another becomes seemingly possessed by an evil spirit. With suspicion and paranoia mounting, family members accuse teenage daughter Thomasin of witchcraft, charges she adamantly denies. As circumstances grow more treacherous, each family member’s faith, loyalty and love become tested in shocking and unforgettable ways.

Yet Another Month of Horror 2015 – Chapter 3

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The Canadian Thanksgiving weekend provided one turkey and several tasty morsels: Leprechaun, The Canal, Tales That Witness Madness and Witchcraft.

 

Leprechaun (Mark Jones – 1993)
It didn’t really take me long to decide that the first film in the rather lengthy Leprechaun series (there’s six or seven of them in all I think) would be the end of the line for me. It’s not like I expected to be drawn into a series of horror-comedy films about an evil leprechaun, but nothing about this film gave me any reason to press forward. Everything is just mediocre. It’s not horrific or creepy or even suspenseful. And it was neither funny nor fun. That may be a subjective statement I suppose, but most of the humour is pretty basic and uninspired. Jennifer Aniston is actually pretty decent here in one of her earliest roles, but in the end I was simply bored. Warwick Davis is the titular little green guy, but his grotesque form just isn’t overly interesting after he cracks his first corny joke and gnashes his teeth. I guess there was an audience for this since they made more of them (apparently with different approaches and levels of comedy), but this particular one sure wasn’t made for me.

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TIFF 2015 Review: The Witch

At any moment in human history, no matter how civilized we may think we are, dark woods have always had a deep capacity to scare the hell out of us. Lars von Trier was not wrong in his observance that “Nature is Satan’s church,” insofar as that our fears rule us when we are alone in any unfettered wilderness. Long, uncomfortable zooms into the black, endless trees vis-a-vis handsome camera-work is merely the tip of buried dread from first time director Robert Eggers. His previous work as a production designer serves him well in making such a small and insular movie, pretty much a single location shoot, The Witch, feel portentous and unfathomably large. You do not view the film so much bear witness to this family on the brink.

Set in early 17th century New England, we are introduced to the pious, yet insolent, patriarch of the film’s puritan family, William, and his row with the local clergy; of whom he deems not strict enough (or perhaps corrupt) in how they preach and practice the scripture. With more than a bit of self-importance and rage, he packs up his wife, Katherine, along with their five children, and sets out to forge his own homestead outside the (relative) safety of the muddy roads and towns walls. United in faith, they will conquer this wilderness; it will not consume them.

What ensues is a slow-burn, household collapse in the crucible of pilgrim stress: Failed crops, religious fervour and superstition, along with a healthy portion of hypocrisy grimly test familial and spiritual bonds. Drama and domestic minutiae are placed first and foremost over genre tropes, albeit these are far from absent, lurking on the periphery almost waiting to pounce. Staying true to accounts of the time period, with a taste for ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ on the tongue, the film is earnest in its presentation, laying itself open to easy mockery from those who do not synchronize up with its particular vibrations. The Witch reminded me immensely of James Marsh’s wonderfully sinister (and sorely unappreciated) Wisconsin Death Trip, a documentary re-enactment of newspaper clippings and letters from a mid-western town that went inexplicably mad in the 19th century; a fever dream with no answers. Eggers is slightly more pragmatic in his approach, although I remain somewhat unconvinced that films like this benefit from answers. (see also, Ti West’s House of the Devil.)

Would you like to know more…?

Occultober – Day 10 – Häxan

Häxan
Häxan, aka Witchcraft Through The Ages, is a Swedish-Danish documentary made in 1922 that is super-stylized, often hysterically theatrical, and a fascinating curio of its era. Director Benjamin Christensen gives an overview on demons and witches in Medieval times, not often (to me, anyway) clear in his distinction between fact and fiction, such that Häxan feels less like a documentary (admittedly the form was young, Nanook of the North having come out in the same year) and more like a horror-fantasia. Satan and witches and other assorted demons prance around in front of the static camera with varying colour tints applied to the Black & White footage and lots of special effects which evoke the pioneer of the form, Georges Méliès. The director himself plays Satan in the film, an image and performance that is difficult to forget. (He also plays Jesus Christ and simply himself in the film.) And the film has a field day with Inquisitor torture devices and other acts of human barbarism in medieval times.

The final product is surprisingly entertaining, gruesome, grotesque, and frankly, well ahead of its time; albeit it is difficult to put yourself into the mindset of an audience, either domestic or foreign, taking it upon its initial release. However, it is certainly enough that The Criterion Collection obtained the film and did a full restoration in 2001.

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TIFF Review: Witching & Bitching

Witching And Bitching

They are in every city along the main tourist drags, those living statues of celebrities, comic book characters and horror icons just standing there, silently hoping for your loose change. In Álex De La Iglesia’s latest bit of mayhem, they’re not standing still for long; nothing here is ever silent for long. In broad daylight on the crowded streets of Madrid, Jesus Christ, a Toy Soldier, Spongebob Squarepants, the Invisible man and possibly Mickey & Minnie Mouse knock off a “We Buy Your Gold” shop. In a haze of sweat and bullets, they make off with the booty of a couple thousand golden wedding rings in a hijacked Taxi.

Painted head to to in silver body spray, Jesus, with a shotgun to match his chrome skin and thorny crown, is actually Jose, a single Dad who perhaps unwisely, choses to not only bring his 10 year kid, Sergio, along for the heist, but gives him a fairly active role in the job. While at gunpoint, one of the hostage gives Jose grief for involving a child in the crime for which violence will be inevitable. Jose defends himself stating that he only gets custody a couple days a week. The hostage sympathizes with the unfair court system that favours the mother. At one point during the escape, Sergio is firing two pistols, Chow Yun Fat style, at the police, over the shoulders of his dad who carries him. Do not look for cinéma vérité or neo-realism, or any kind of common sense here, as this is pure ‘id’ filmmaking from a director who particularly excels at this sort of middle-finger to propriety and society. Witching & Bitching may be less operatic than de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus, but more is as gonzo as anything he has done (and considering the man’s lengthy C.V. of genre genius, that is indeed saying something. In his sights here is the impotent machismo of men, and the vindictive revenge of women. And children being shat out the other side. Literally.

The women-bashing continues in the car as the both the cabbie and an unwilling passenger (a hostage taken when the cab was hijacked) also have significant lady problems that they are more than happy to moan about. The cabbie goes so far as to throw is own wedding ring on to the heap of golden bands acquired during the heist and offer to join up. Jose’s phone sounds off with a red klaxon ringtone, where the caller ID indicates his ex as “Armageddon.” She calls to check in on the incompetence of her ex husband and chew him out for the sheer practice of the act. Played by the diminutive but feisty Macarena Gomez an actress who is no stranger to black comedy spectacle – her performances in horror comedy Sexykiller and the over-the-top misogynous gangster picture Neon Flesh could be described as broad, but here that is just a very bad pun. After taking out her frustrations on her patients (she’s a nurse) when she finds out about the heist, she is soon hot on the trail of her ex-husband and child with two police inspectors tailing her to them.

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TIFF Review: A Field In England

AFieldInEngland

A black and white medieval rumination on cowardice, faith and agency, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a bit of a head-scratcher. It is occasionally funny, in that dry British understand fashion, but it is also at times maddeningly sparse, and maddeningly opaque, like a Samuel Beckett play. It reminded me at once of the non-campy Vincent Price flick Witchfinder General, largely because of the same historical setting and similarity between the period costumes, but also of Vincent Ward’s The Navigator a film of a curiously practical-surrealism where a group of men flee the bubonic plague by time travelling to 1980s New Zealand. The grittier, grainier 35mm photography of those older films has a smoothing effect in terms of how aesthetics help in suspension of disbelief, something that the crisp digital photography here seemed to always prevent me from absorbing myself into the film. Maybe this is a generational thing, or perhaps a personal thing, but it was a very real thing; one that blocked me at many a turn from deeply engaging or enjoying this strange experience.

In the 17th century English Civil War, in the middle of a heated battled between Royalists and the Parliamentarians, a bookish and timid servant named Whitehead is separated from his master, and flees the melee with another deserting soldier. Cowardice on the part of the former, the search for an alehouse on the part of the latter. The two of them pick up further companions as they cross a wide and deserted stretch of meadow (the eponymous Field) before they are captured by a musket wielding man named Cutler and forced to aid his Irish-sorcerer Lord, O’Neil, in an effort to find some kind of alchemical treasure, or perhaps simply gold, buried in the vicinity. In spite of its ominous tone, and often pounding percussion score, A Field in England is never in any particular hurry to get anywhere and the characters, between walking or browbeating threats by Cutler and O’Neil, talk about religion, witchcraft, and incontinence. At some point they cross a line of mushrooms, even throw some of them in the soup. Things get weird. The whole O’Neil character might just be a mirage for all the guilt and spiritual fortitude of Whitehead. The editing and slow motion get a touch gonzo – Fear and Loathing in Worcester. But for all the bold experimentation going on in A Field of England, at times it feels like it is not bold enough. It may be restraint by the director (or the promise offered by the avant garde trailer) but at times, admittedly, the filmmaking on display just looks like actors covered in dirt and clad in period costume, walking around a grassy hillside in 21st century Britain. The language seems to vacillate between authentic to theatrical to contemporary. It is often unsettling for the wrong reasons.

There is just something not quite right with the film that I have a lot of trouble putting my finger upon. This is just the sort of thing that I should gravitate towards, a serio-comic and slyly irreverent gutterpunk-Bergman fever dream (that’s for the BluRay clamshell, folks) but the enterprise left me rather distant from the experience. Reece Shearsmith sells Whitehead in all his contradictions, bookish and meek, but with a streak of pomposity and perhaps an even deeper, untapped well of authority. Wheatley regular Michael Smiley is convincing as the sorcerer O’Neill, even as the direction of his character aims for ‘iconic posing’ over any kind of deeply motivated character. He is more a figment than a person. This may be intentional. The rest of the cast hang about in the background, coming to the fore when deemed necessary, but otherwise are pretty low key. Peter Ferdinando shits (or fails to shit) convincingly.

The film taps into the friction of Christian superstition against the pagan roots of England (particularly with an effective double use of Scot lullaby “Baloo my Boy”) but seems to be more interested in gory and style moments than any sort of lasting introspection. I admire the many strange directors that Ben Wheatley has done with his career in such a rapid fashion, but I’m afraid A Field of England is more of a curio than anything else The film has already done its theatrical, VOD, and Television run in the UK and is easily available by importing the British BLU. It is also programmed in the Wavelengths sidebar at this years Toronto International Film Festival.