*** This is a SPOILERific digestion of the plot, characters and themes of the film***
Robert Eggers’ uncompromising directorial / writer debut, THE VVITCH, proves itself as one of the great horror classics of contemporary cinema, and yet somehow despite having a 91% on rotten tomato’s “tomatometer”, the audience score sits at an unfresh 55%. Mainstream horror fans venture into this film expecting to see the same doled out plot devices and scare tactics they’re used to being fed in inferior, lazier, and frankly less scary films. Many complain THE VVITCH is boring, slow & nothing happens. Some say the film’s a “slow burn”, when the action unfolds right from the start. It’s hard to rationalize such grievances when those complaints could not be further from the truth. Similar to other personal favorite horror films of the 2000’s such as Under the Skin & The Decent, THE VVITCH is masterful in its set up of unsettling suspense from the very first frame. It constructs an aura of tension, like something’s already amiss even before the first act of terror begins.
A sinister period piece that tells the tale of a New England Puritan family’s decline into madness, THE VVITCH embodies the many transgressions that shaped America’s early evils. The story’s themes tap into our rational fears of acceptance, conspiracy, shame, isolation, starvation, hopelessness, insanity and death, while simultaneously playing into our “irrational” fears of the supernatural, damnation and the devil. Yet as dark as the film’s outcome is, there’s still an underlying tone of feminine empowerment within Thomasin’s coming of age, which explores the catharsis of finding one’s personal freedoms in a world of mental and physical repression. It’s not often that modern day horror films have such layered complexities, and because of this such rare gems like THE VVITCH should be celebrated for these merits not berated because of them.
Set a decade after the Mayflower lands, predating the murderous religious mania of the 1692 Salem witch trials, the film features a New England family setting out into the wilderness to forge their own way after separating themselves from their community due to religious differences. William (Ralph Ineson), the fanatical pious patriarch who’s brought before the village chamber and blamed for his “prideful conceit”, claims to practice only “the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels.”
“I cannot be judged by false Christians, for I have done nothing but preach God’s true gospel,” he attests to the council. Yet he, his wife and family of five, in the face of the threat of banishment from the church, decide to seek out a new homestead of their own.
Mirroring the palpable sense of immediate dread of “The Shining” as Jack Torrance and his family travel towards a new place they hope will improve their lives and bring their family closer together, when in actuality they are headed towards their ill-fated destiny, The VVitch also creates a strong feeling of foreboding as William and his family pile into a packed wagon alongside all their belongings and journey out into what they believe will be a better life. Unfortunately, like the Torrances, this unsuspecting family suffers no less a similarly condemned outcome.
Now settled in a Grimm’s fairy tale-esque backdrop on the edge of the woods, William, with his brazen confidence, and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) place praise upon what they think is a place of new possibilities and saving grace for their family. However, not long after they build a house and establish a farm, strange and frightening occurrences arise that challenge their faith and set in motion a horrific dissent into mayhem. Horrors happen straightaway and Eggers wastes no time on a build up to the titular character’s reveal, reveling in a literal bloodbath of malevolent imagery as he sets a nightmarish tone.
Their crops are failing, winter is coming and the family struggles in their newfound promise land. The groundwork for disaster begins as the family is cast out of their protective community and then further propelled by the abduction of Samuel, which the eldest daughter Thomasin (outstanding newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) is partly held responsible for. Despite the shroud of mystery surrounding the baby’s disappearance, William & Kate are unwilling to believe that anything other than a wolf could have snatched the child from Thomasin’s watch, but the audience knows better. Simultaneously to these invading supernatural forces are the unrelenting hardships of agrarian life that begins to take affect on and harden their spirit. They’re hungry, afraid and displaced from the comforts of the life in England they once knew.
The cloaked witch scampers through the forest with babe in arms, taking him back to her lair for unspeakable terrors. According to the Old Testament, the name Samuel means “destined for a holy life from birth,” which unfortunately is not the case for this poor child. Drenched in mythical folklore, the script not only utilizes the historically accurate dialect of mid-17th century pilgrims, but also showcases real life satanic symbolism and traditions. It is said that in order to fly, witches have to concoct an ointment from newborn, unbaptized blood and lather both themselves and their sticks. In a uncomfortably brutal yet minimalist scene, the witch grinds up fleshy pulp and lays naked under the stars, eventually rising up to soar in the night sky.
Thomasin, now the subject of much suspicion, falls victim to her parents unyielding religious convictions as she desperately seeks their approval as well as God’s unattainable grace. In prayer she confesses her impurities, but despite rigorous devotion, it is clear that something within her stirs, unable to stay confined within the repressive realm of their religious lifestyle. She somehow achieves looking both angelic and a bit mischievous as she tries to live under the code of strict Christian conduct while also breaching her inevitable looming womanhood. Unlike the thin, sunken faces of William & Kate, Thomasin’s round rosy-cheeked, soft features are not yet marred by old age and tiresome tribulations. As William’s crops wither and die, Thomasin’s body continues to blossom and grow. Yet as in many tales of the paranormal where evil latches onto vulnerable women who are traditionally the most susceptible to its grasp, bizarre incidents surround Thomasin as she finds a chicken laying stillborn in its egg and a goat milking blood on their bewitched farm.
However, it’s not just Thomasin that’s impressionable by evil lurking about them. Brother and sister, Jonas & Mercy, also falling in line with classic possession stories, are wayward young children, who are known to also commonly sensitive to demonic forces. As twins they have an eerie inseparable bond, and seem to have developed an unnatural relationship with the family’s menacing goat, ominously named ‘Black Phillip”, a name ironically derived from the word ‘friend’ in its historical context. As William & Kate fruitlessly try to control the wild environment, the twins haphazardly galavant in the woods, bored from the isolation the family endures during their self induced segregation from their colony.
The diabolical twin children prance around the farm chanting like little hellions.
“Black Phillip, Black Phillip
King of sky and land,
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
King of sea and sand.
We are ye servants,
We are ye men.
Black Phillip eats the lions from the lions’ den.”
It’s an early indicator that this dark goat with the wicked, glazed stare is much more than meets the eye.
A widely recognized symbol of Satan, and the Goat of Mendez is known as the ‘God of The Witches’. Medieval legend has it that the Devil created the goat, that Satan himself often appears with horns, and is known to even take on the goat’s form at will.
This creepy chant made up by the twins insinuates they’ve already been touched by evil early on, that they’re now tiny servants of Satan. As Christian symbolism dictates, God is depicted as a lion as part of the Holy trinity, and as their song lyrics state, “Black Phillip eats the lions from the lions den.” Later on, it’s notable that Jonas and Mercy are snatched from the goat’s den after William locks them away for the night.
The oldest son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), tries to uphold stability amongst the chaos as his family starts to shatter. In an attempt to save the farm and prevent Thomasin from being sold in the village as a maid, he sets out into the wood with his loyal dog in search for food and animal pelts for trade. Kate makes a point to William that because of Thomasin’s breaching puberty, it’s now time for her to leave the farm and work for another family. The eavesdropping children don’t like what they hear about their unpleasant future plans.
Caleb, by name is historically known as one of twelve Israelite leaders sent by Moses to explore the Promised Land, and the word literally means “dog” or “bold”. Yet even with such a rich contextual background, Caleb is not safe against the evil forces that are out to destroy them all. After the death of baby Sam, the family is shaken to the core, and while Kate is mourning and praying hopelessly for salvation, Caleb attempts a more active approach to fixi their situation. Nonetheless, he also feels doubts of his spiritual shortcomings, and deeply fears eternal damnation, realizing his bodily weaknesses as he shamefully catches himself lusting after Thomasin’s fleshy physical developments.
While hunting a hare that he and his father saw earlier, Caleb tries to do the right thing for his family by venturing into the woods to track it down. Too soon trying to fill the role of the reliable man of the house, he clumsily totes around his father’s long rifle around the forest, but becomes lost only to wind up lured onto the witch’s doorstep. His dog, like the farm goats at the end of the film, is left disemboweled by the evil sorceress hunting them down.
The rabbit, with the same intense brown eyes as Black Phillip, is no doubtably also the witch in a shape-shifted form. This creature is first shown as Caleb and William try to shoot it on a hunting expedition. As William aims intensely down the barrel of his gun, the hare stares unflinchingly back until the rifle suddenly misfires into William’s face, causing him to miss his mark and allowing the rabbit to scamper off.
Traditionally, rabbits are associated with fertility, sentiment, desire, and procreation, all apt symbolism as Caleb now comes to face to face with the wicked witch in the wood, who has now surprisingly taken the disguise of a seductive young siren. Scantly clad and bestowing heaving bosoms, the witch shows him more skin than he’s ever been allowed to see in his lifetime. Her sinful crimson cloak juxtaposes the Christ-like, pure white cloth that wraps around William as he diligently chops blocks back at the farm.
It’s no coincidence that William resembles Jesus Christ while he tolls away trying to function as the savior of his family; the name William means ‘Resolute protector, will, and conqueror’. When the witch’s poison seeps deep into the family and rips them apart from the inside, Thomasin eventually lets her guard down and abruptly shouts at her father, bluntly pointing out that, “thou canst do nothing save but cut wood!” This outburst against his competency as a provider subsequently results in a shocking response from the otherwise rigidly restrained William. Unable to vanquish his failings as a husband, father, Christian and farmer, William compensates by incessantly chopping wood, a simple task he can at least accomplish, but obsessively focuses on much more than necessary. Eventually the towering pile of lumber becomes his tomb.
After his encounter with the deceptive witch, Caleb stumbles back to the farm, but he is not the same. With strange bite marks around his lips, and a bloody apple shoved down his throat (conjuring symbolism of the Garden of Eden while also referencing when Caleb lies about searching for apples which he has not tasted since moving to America), Caleb begins to twist in torment as he spews heretical mockeries of his families prayers to heal him. Kate tries with all her might to cleanse her son from the enchantment as she performs bloodletting from his temple. But her idea of medicine is to no avail and he dies after a final hysterical outburst of maniac, possessed laughter.
Meanwhile the two unruly twins are also rolling around on the floor as William and Thomasin look on in shock. After Caleb’s violent screams subside, Jonas and Mercy’s disturbing flailing quiets to an eerie stillness accompanied by creepy, heavy breathing from their little chests. Similar to the feigned convulsions witnessed from the girls responsible for initiating the Salem witch trials, it’s not for certain if Jonas & Mercy are merely acting out trying to prove their belief that the nefarious Thomasin is responsible for bewitching Caleb , or if evil really has taken hold of their bodies.
Once the witch’s black magic releases Caleb’s soul from this world, Kate already on the brink of hysterics since Samuel’s disappearance, is now completely consumed by despair and is convinced that Thomasin is truly to blame for their undoing. William, unable to determine who is being truthful about their ungodliness, reacts by locking all the remaining children in the goat barn, along with Black Phillip no less. William returns to his chopping block but instead of stoically hacking away more timber, he pitifully drops to his knees and begs for God’s mercy, admitting his failure as a leader and recants the unholy egotism that brought them to this cursed place; however, no one but the teary eyed Thomasin bears witness to his regretful sobs.
In the middle of the night, Katherine, whose name means “pure and clear” is unable to function under such tainted moral depravity, and she succumbs to a vision of her two lost children who beckon her out of bed. In a peaceful trance, she goes to Caleb and Samuel, who’s also wrapped in that same scarlet cloth seen with the witch before, and brings her baby up to nurse. Meanwhile, the imprisoned children are left outside to fend for themselves as they hear something heavy land on the rooftop and make it’s was inside the barn. Mercy and Jonas hesitantly step towards the shadowy figure which is now suckling at one of the goat’s teats, and they are terrified to see the witch has found them. As William unknowingly slumbers, his two youngest children are torn from the barn, while in a scene that will surely make women ache, his wife laughs feverishly as the false image of Samuel is revealed to be a raven pecking strings of flesh from her exposed breast. It is to be noted that ravens are known to be tricksters, sly and mischievous, and are notorious as symbols of death.
The next morning, William stumbles out of bed to find the barn’s rooftop is completely ripped off, livestock gruesomely killed, and Thomasin is somehow unharmed amongst the rubble. Yet before he can react, he’s gutted in the stomach by the long horns of Black Phillip. Earlier in the film, William tussles briefly with the goat, but is able to steer it inside the pen, which brings to question if Black Phillip has been the devil incarnate the entire time or not. Now this midnight colored goat rears fiercely on its hind legs as it delivers a final deadly blow to William’s torso, knocking him back into the towering pile of logs he has so diligently collected over the course of the film. Earlier on, Mercy sings about Black Phillip and the lyrics are foreshadowing her father’s death, “He’ll knock thee on thy back!” There’s a moment before the deathly goring that William grabs a tool as if to use it as a weapon in defense of his attacker, but then with an almost knowing look of defeat, he drops it to the ground and accepts his doomed fate as the goat’s horns again pierce his flesh, the wound being not unlike Christ’s infamous wound from the spear.
Now with only her potentially treacherous daughter left, Kate emerges from the house in an uncontrollable craze, her hair suddenly let loose and wild after being tightly bound up. She attacks Thomasin thinking she to be a conduit of evil and bringing forth the destruction of their family, accusing her of using her whorish body as a tool to beguile the devil. Despite Thomasin desperately trying to convince her mother otherwise with frantic shouts of, “I love you!”, in a fit of rage Kate throws her to the ground and tries to choke the life out of her in a panicked fury. To stop Kate’s ongoing assault, Thomasin stabs her to death with the nearest tool while crying out in painful emotional agony. Covered in her mother’s blood and now the sole survivor left on the wrecked plot of land they once tried to call home, in a quiet state of disbelief Thomasin makes her way back inside the house where she sheds off her colonial corset dress, the constraints of her religious shackles, and falls asleep until nightfall.
Once darkness descends, Thomasin awakes and slowly follows the sound of magical chimes leading her back towards the barn where Black Phillip knowingly awaits her. She steps inside beckoning him to speak to her, for she believes he has already communicated with Jonas & Mercy. At first she hears nothing and begins to turn away dismayed, but then hears a silky voice, “What dost thou want?” She turns back with lit eyes and asks what he has to give, in which he replies seductively:
“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?” (umm, who wouldn’t? Especially after eating all those unleavened corn cakes!)
“…a pretty dress?” (considering her current one is now sprayed with her mother’s blood and all her Puritan abiding clothes are joyless, definitely)
“Wouldst thou like to see the world?” (after living in total isolation on the farm, for sure yes)
and finally in the favorite line of the film his snake smooth voice echoes, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Considering her dire circumstances, she doesn’t have much option:
Almost definite starvation on the blight ridden, destroyed property
A continued life of extreme puritanical faith
By killing her mother, even for self-protection, she’s now committed a irredeemable sin in the eyes of her all judging Lord.
Despite her devotion, there’s been an absence of Christ’s mercy in her life. When seeking prayers for forgiveness, she’s still consumed by betrayal and death. There’s nothing to show for a lifetime of forbidden emotions and confined choices while she begs for a redemption that will never come.
Considering all this, she’s eager to accept Black Phillip’s enticing promises of a more hopeful life, even if she’s technically trading in one cult lifestyle for another. As she is shown the Devil’s book on which to sign, Black Phillip has now manifested into a spur wearing man hidden in shadows who wraps his leather gloved hand around her bare skin in a very Giallo fashion while she sheds the last bit of clothes and remnants of her past upon his command. With Black Phillip again transfigured back into goat form, Thomasin is lead deep into the woods where she comes across a cackling coven of witches. Amongst the raging bonfire, which one might assume is roasting Jonas and Mercy, the group of unclad harpies shout chants, dancing praises for their dark lord. Thomasin looks on with admiration as she enters their circle, her supple young nudity juxtaposing their weathered, writhing bodies. With her new master’s magic lifting them up, Thomasin joins in their demented ritual as they begin to levitate eerily towards the sky. As the diabolical film score’s choir cacophony crescendos, the witches rise higher, their shrieks louden, and tears stream down Thomasin’s face as she smiles widely, and laughs insanely, lifting her hands towards her deliverance in a final Christ-like pose while hovering above the tree tops. She welcomes her damnation as her liberation from the condemned world of piety and lonely hopelessness.
Using The VVitch as a cinematic apparatus, Eggers looks to shine a light on a grim element of American history where an insufferable god-fearing obsession with immorality leads men to commit heinous acts of cruelty against his own fellow. Steeped in religious fanaticism, the family creates their own miseries when left alone to confront their vices, which in turn develops into dangerous obsessions on upholding oppressive Christian values— a sociological trend that will continue to plague the pious psyche for ongoing future generations throughout human history.
An air of distrust is cast upon the household and family members begin to turn on one another. Kate, increasingly convinced of a looming curse, blames her husband’s enormous pride for their exile, and is disgusted with herself for her diminished connection to God’s presence. William, unwilling to admit defeat and seek forgiveness from his peers, secretly attempts to right his wrong-doing by selling his wife’s heirloom silver cup and venturing into the forbidden woods with Caleb, leaving Thomasin to take the brunt of the blame for his dishonest actions. Caleb feels an overwhelming need to step up into his manhood in order to protect his family, but is limited in what he can do as a child. He also finds weakness in his growing awareness of his temptations while maturing beside Thomasin’s simultaneous sexual awakening as a developing young woman. He feels the fear of death after hearing of his unbaptized brother’s supposed damnation according to the wrath of the gospel. Jonas, which means “gift from God” and Mercy, whose name means “compassion”, are anything but what they should be representative of; these two Hansel & Gretel type mischief-makers are a burden to those around them as they use their boredom as an excuse for needless instigation and commotion. Thomasin battles her desperate determination to be an obedient, respectfully loving child in both her parents eyes as those of the Lord. And yet, despite her dedication to the covenant, she feels self-loathing and insecurities, emotions which are then turned against her when the family begins to fall apart. Ironically she becomes the family’s scapegoat, when in fact her only security in life comes from the family goat, Black Phillip.
Despite the family’s self-denying lifestyle they cannot escape the grasps of this woodland hell, and regardless of the witch, the seams of their bond come undone early on, only then further exacerbated by their belief that their misfortunes are a result of their lack of faith for which they seem inescapably damned. They doubt their convictions and fear their mild discrepancies are the personification of wickedness. From the very start of the film, Thomasin is bound by her Puritan attire, clothes head to toe in restrictive wear as she stares up towards the council, almost as though in contemplative prayer to Heaven for salvation from her father’s arrogance. As they are cast out from the commune, she is the last of her family to turn away from her people, begrudgingly following her kin towards their doom.
This first shot contrasts heavily with the end of the film where she separates from her religious inhibitions and removes her restraining clothing, entering a realm of acceptance and pleasure unlike anything she has allowed herself to ever experience.
Now instead of looking up towards God, virginal and pure, she now bows her head down for Satan, coated in familial blood and stark naked in the moonlight. Ironically in all her soul searching, she is able to find grace not through Christ, but instead her redemption resides with the Devil.
Some audiences pose the question: what if the family is inadvertently fabricating the witch in their irrational, fanatical minds? What if their fate is the result of their own poor choices during a time of great personal loss, and there’s really no witch at all, but rather a mass hysteria that’s responsible for their anxieties and delusions? Delirium could be induced from ingesting their diseased corn, as certain fungi are known to cause spasms and sickness. This could offer some grounded explanation to their psychological breakdown, but personally I believe there is much more at play in this striking supernatural horror story. Unable to initially recognize the true antagonist they face, William acting headstrong in his convictions, utters to his family, “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.” Unfortunately, that fate is exactly what befalls them.
As the family disintegrates throughout the film, it is Thomasin that remains the most level-headed representative of good consciousness. Although she doubts her spiritual existence, she does not fall prey to seduction as does Caleb, nor deception as does her mother & father or ideal negligence as do the twins. After Sam’s disappearance, while her mother is debilitatingly laments her lost son, Thomasin continues with the daily chores while her little siblings raise hell and cause trouble. The origin of the name “Thomasin” comes from the meaning “twin”, appropriate since she’s split between two separate selves as her fancy for freedom struggles against her strict upbringing.
THE VVITCH is a celebration of feminism, using Thomasin’s perspective as a story telling device to promote inner strength against the backdrop of a meek, guilt ridden culture that breeds distrust, rigid morality and fear of desire. Raised in an environment where femininity is inherently a vice, signs of womanhood are seen as a burden to the household and signals the need for subservience. Thomasin’s adolescence becomes a problem, causing Katherine and William to conspire a plan for her to be put to work for another family, which means her and her sexuality will be out of the house and at least earning an alternate income which is much needed after their failure as farmers. Despite offering to pick up the slack after Katherine breaks down when her baby dies, Thomasin remains the brunt of the blame for all their setbacks.
Eventually she embraces her innocence and self preservation, becoming more willful against her family’s unfair accusations, and the rebellion results in her father calling her a “bitch” and locking her up. She’s metaphorically strangled by the confines of their religious mania, and then literally strangled by her deranged mother. Her freedom finally comes when she’s released from the binds of mankind, being encompassed by the wholly accepting kinship amongst the liberated witch women. The true darkness of this film, however, is that Thomasin is only able to feel a sense of liberation after signing over her soul to Satan, who is the only one that can offer her all the things she’d never be able to enjoy in society otherwise. It is a reflection of living in a world where the promises of the Devil are more rewarding than the suffering of life and the endurance of womanhood in a patriarchal world. She may feel free, but she’s merely owned by a different master. THE VVITCH is indeed a folk tale with a bleak moral to its story.
Robert Eggers has emerged as one of the biggest up and coming filmmakers of his generation. THE VVITCH is visual stunning, a grounded yet dreamy nightmare that highlights a particular sense of detail, exceptional mood setting and superb casting with impressive commitment to the craft. The themes embedded in the film travel outside the norm of what has become commonplace in often shallow modern horror films. Eggers work is a breath of fresh air; he delivers the unexpected. The script is tight with a well spun, heavily layered yet simply told story, and Eggers weaves a rich tapestry of colors and emotions alongside cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, who captures the disquieted nature of the film beautifully. Mark Korven’s hauntingly violent, Suspiria inspired Kubrickian choir cues, primal drum beats and deep, sorrowful, often times disturbingly dissonant instrumentals conjure an atmospheric spell. The soundtrack is truly unnerving and burns a memory into the mind. Booming indie film distributor, A24, has become synonymous with genre defining releases, presenting a wide repertoire of recent favorites such as Green Room, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, Locke, Under the Skin, Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, so it comes to no surprise that A24 is attached to one of the most significant horror films of this century.
THE VVITCH, may be misunderstood by many in its time, but it’s without a doubt a genuinely masterful, brilliant work of art that has proven to be a modern day cinematic achievement giving life to an over saturated genre. Eggers, rumored to helm the next Nosferatu remake, as well as direct the Rasputin miniseries, possesses a remarkable skill, especially for such a fledgling director. With THE VVITCH solidifying itself as a major seminal work in this age of horror, it’s clear that we shall come to expect greatness from him and his team of accomplished story-tellers.