Saturday, 28 May 2016

Film Review: The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015)

© Universal Pictures International | Source: New England Folklore
USA, UK, Canada, Brazil; 92 min.; horror, mystery, drama
Director: Robert Eggers
Writing: Robert Eggers
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

"We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us."  -- William

In early 2015, The VVitch took the Sundance Film Festival by storm. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won Robert Eggers the Directing Award. Since then, the film has played some more festivals, received raving reviews, released a perfectly creepy trailer and, this year, finally got a wide release. According to critics and audiences alike, people queuing up for a ticket to see this New-England Folktale are in for one of the most intense and terrifying cinematic experiences of their lives. The buzz was big, indeed, and I myself got crazy-excited and terrified simply over anticipating the moment I would, finally, behold The VVitch in all its eerie and unsettling glory.

Well, where to start? There really is nothing scary about it. At all. The lack of intensity, thrill and horrifying moments is quite disappointing. As it often happens, the marketing has taken some misleading measures in making us believe that we’re about to witness the greatest horror movie ever made when, really, there’s nothing horrific about it. I mean, feeling horrified obviously is a very subjective emotion. And while I can see some more sensitive people shriek at the bloodier parts and hide their eyes behind their hands whenever the camera forces us through the thick and gloomy forest, I myself never felt uncomfortable. I did enjoy the film, though, because once I could shove away my disappointment over not feeling any fright, I came to appreciate the fact that it’s a truly atmospheric social study – with a hilarious camp factor that just cannot be disregarded.

I’m one of those people that really like to read Nathaniel Hawthorne. When someone brings out The Scarlet Letter, I cheer with joy and am totally game. So, what do I do when Eggers transports me back into the 17th century to watch a strict Puritan family be banished from their settlement for “dishonour[ing] the laws of the commonwealth and the church with [their] prideful conceit”? You get the idea. When that little family then finds itself at the edge of the woods, all alone and without much food? Perfect. And when the oldest daughter of that family then is under suspicion of conspiring with a local witch to wreak havoc among her relatives and worship the devil? Hellooo, you have my full attention.

The VVitch is much more than a couple of cheap jump scares and a bit of butchering on the side. It’s Young Goodman Brown on his first period... or something. It’s about daughters emancipating themselves from their families. About religious tyranny and its effects on the individual. About temptation and budding puberty. About men and women against nature. About civilisation and wilderness. And in handling all these themes, the film really isn’t subtle. There’s this air of exaggerated Hawthorne-ism and, just like the author, the film embraces stereotypes to get its point across. There are naked old women stealing newborn babes and drinking bloody milk. There’s a possessed child and an evil, dancing goat. There’s a black mass around a campfire.

And then there’s this family. For most of the film, they’re screaming hysterically at one another. Mother Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) blaming father William (Ralph Ineson) for provoking the banishment. The young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are blaming their older sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) for, allegedly, worshipping an unholy power. Brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) blames himself for finding pleasure in looking at his sister’s neckline. So there’s shouting and accusations and drama – sometimes intriguing, sometimes annoying, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes boring, often redundant, and yet hard to look away from. It’s like your favourite glossy evening soap opera has been transported back into the unglamorous New England of the 1630s. It’s unnerving. And weird. And, still, somehow mesmerising.

In all its weird- and unevenness, one thing is certain, though: The VVitch is crafted beautifully. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography offers washed out colours and exciting camera angles. The makeup, hair and costume design makes it easy to dive right back into the early colonisation period on US soil, and gain an understanding of the simplicity of Puritan life. Add to this a haunting score and Ralph Ineson’s melodic, growling voice and you got yourself an atmospheric period piece.

Robert Eggers feature debut is a rollercoaster ride of moods and emotions. I was disappointed in it, at times slightly bored, often annoyed and irritated. However, I also found it entertaining and just sheer fun to watch. It’s clichéd and over the top. Complex, yet simplistic. For me, it’s not a horror movie but, just as the tagline suggests, a folktale. Brothers Grimm, only darker. Maybe the initial promotion for this film put me off and prevented me from fully enjoying it – not as a tale of scares and terror, but as a weird mix of camp, history, gore and social criticism. And a dancing goat.


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