Tom Humberstone


horror week - day 2

The Witch (2016)

"Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?"

Quick summary: A family in 17th Century New England are struggling on their own after being banished from a Puritan plantation. Are their subsequent ill-fortunes due to some evil presence in the wood? Do they have a witch in their midst? Or are they suffering some mass hallucination?

The Witch (or VVitch - based on a Jacobean pamphlet spelling) received a huge amount of praise earlier in the year but I failed, as I often do, to catch it in the cinema. I remember there was a lot of talk at the time about first-time director Robert Eggers' faithfulness to historical detail, and that a lot of audiences felt disappointed by the film after all the hype. People argued over whether or not to call it a horror film, and the marketing was partly blamed for leading people to expect a more explicitly jump-scare type of horror experience instead of the slow unravelling of familial trauma.

I absolutely loved the film. Followers of my horror illustrations will probably already know I generally favour atmospheric, deliberately paced, suggestive horror over gore-fests and cheap jump-scares (as much as I enjoy those as well from time to time) - so this film flew by for me and it is, of course, a horror film. Whether the shocking/creepy supernatural elements in the film are real or some sort of shared hysteria doesn't really change that. I was, and remain, chilled by the film.

The cast, including Finchy from the British Office, are superb and deliver the heavily-researched and delicious dialogue with a subdued naturalism. The strained strings of the soundtrack kept me tense and on-edge throughout, and it's beautifully shot.

The film aims to work as some sort of undiscovered, ageless, universal folktale - no specific, deliberate allegory - you get out what you take in. I think it's successful in that - I can see myself returning to it and reading different things into it with each viewing. I'm looking forward to doing that.

I also watched:

Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm (1968)

"Witchfinding? Oh, that's nice. That's very nice"

Quick summary: A witchfinder and his assistant travel around England during the Civil War "interrogating" suspected witches and executing them. Until a young Roundhead decides to bring him to justice.

There's a lot to say about this film - so much so it probably deserved it's own night. It's largely viewed as one of the first "folk horror" films of the era and was directed by Michael Reeves - a 25 year old who died nine months after the film's release due to an accidental overdose. The film met with a lot of controversy due to it's depiction of brutal torture and upsetting violence and ended up having a lot of edits. I watched the Director's Cut which reinstated a lot of those scenes.

Vincent Price, as the witchfinder, is a lot more subtle and understated than usual here. Apparently, he and Reeves didn't get along during the shoot (Price: "I've made 87 films, what have you done?", Reeves: "I've made 3 good ones." BURN).

The film is undoubtedly hard to watch. Despite modern horror pushing further than this does - it still manages to make it's point - that these are horrific acts and we, as a desensitised cinema-going audience, should feel appalled when we watch.

It was released in the US as The Conqueror Worm to tie-in with the Edgar Allen Poe series of films he did with Roger Corman.

The production company - Tigon - went on to make Blood on Satan's Claw as a successor in spirit to Witchfinder General.

Some more choice dialogue: "I saw them consort with their familiars." "And what were these familiars?" "A black cat and a stoat."

Tonight: I'm thinking The Shallows... If I have time, I may try The Bay as well.

Check out the archive of the horror week here.