Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Psychological dread amps up eerie 'The VVitch'

From January to Oscar night, the movies are in the doldrums. The last few Oscar contenders are trickling into neighborhood theaters, along with a few lumbering misfits that are not now, nor have they ever been worthy of any kind of awards push.

But it's a very fertile time for horror movies, the traditional antidote to feel-good holiday fare, and the gnarlier, the better.

So you don't expect too much from a movie called The Witch (or, to be true to the advertising campaign, The VVitch). Its early colonial America setting suggests the Salem witch trials, satanic rites, vintage Hammer horror films.

But this movie is nothing quite so cheesy, nor as gory, as you might expect; it's an often squirmingly intense psychological drama of hysteria and religious fanaticism.

It's still plenty scary (at least, very, very creepy), but it's fearful anticipation that propels the narrative, not in-your-face violence.

Like the best horror/suspense movies (think of the original The Haunting, from 1963), The VVitch plays mercilessly on our dread of what might be lurking in the shadows, rather than actually showing much onscreen—and is all the more effective because of it. Oh, yes, there's blood, but not so much of the usual fx gore-mongering.

Set in New England, ca. 1630—60 years before the famed Salem witch trials—The VVitch is rich in period detail, meticulously researched by rookie writer-director Robert Eggers. It concerns a family cast out of the community to make what living they can on a distant, isolated tract of land at the edge of a sinister wood.

At the center of the tale is eldest daughter, Thomasin (lovely Anya Taylor-Joy). A psychic firestorm seems to be brewing around her that gradually engulfs the entire family. The hysteria and paranoia levels rise to fever pitch, even as the movie's visual focus becomes smaller, more claustrophobic and intense. The action is staged in cramped quarters by flickering firelight, a shadowy barn, or deep in the dense, dark woods.

Subtitled A New England Folk Tale, the film conjures classic images from fairy tales and folklore. Whether or not The Devil is loose among this family, or they're preyed on by devils of their own making, Eggers leaves it up to the viewer to decide. (Read entire review in this week's Good Times.)

Btw: about that title. Filmmaker Eggers says that during his research, he ran across various pamphlets and tracts on witchcraft like this one (from 1643). In the early days of printing, when supplies were often short, if a printer ran out of the letter "W," he might substitute two "Vs" instead. "I thought it looked transportive and exotic," Eggers has said in interviews, "so I used it."

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