“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?
A pretty dress?
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Wouldst thou like to see the world?”
All that in exchange for signing your name in a book and handing over your immortal soul.
The VVitch is titled in that style to mimic the printed works of the 16th and early 17th century, when U, V, and W weren’t quite distinguished as separate letters of the alphabet. This was one of the things that attracted me to this movie before I even saw it. The other thing was learning that the language used was also in the period style, with dialog taken directly from pamphlets and trial accounts of the era. While some have found this mode of speech and the character’s accents off-putting, for me it’s the best thing about the movie. The way the characters talk and their social and religious attitudes are as close as we’ll probably ever get to authentically historic, while remaining accessible to a modern audience.
Aside from a few quibbles–like the breed of dog, the number of candles, or the pierced holes in the heroine’s earlobes–the look of this film is also marvelously well done with regard to historic details. It feels right.
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The VVitch evokes several classic fairytales, but gives them a darker turn. It’s almost a version of Hansel and Gretel in which the witch triumphs.
It’s 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We meet a transplanted Yorkshire family with no given last name as the father William (Ralph Ineson) is being judged by members of a Puritan council. With him are his wife Kate (Kate Dickie), their teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), 12-year-old Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the 6-year old twins, Jonas and Mercy.
William is having religious differences with the elders. Those who came from England to the North American colonies during this period seeking religious freedom were generally in one of two categories: Puritans, who sought to purify the Church of England and remove all taint of Catholicism and “Popish” practice from its rites and ceremonies, and separatists, who gave the Church up as impossibly corrupt and wanted to strike out on their own with their individual ideas of true Christianity. William falls into this second category, and his ideas are out of accord with the rest of the community.
After calling the council “false Christians” and declaring his beliefs to be the true way, William is banished from the colony. He loads his family into a cart and they head out alone into the wilderness.
They journey for two days before they come to a meadow near a vast primeval wood and decide that this is the place where God meant them to settle. Everyone kneels to pray.
We next see the family some months later, in the bleak, late autumn: the trees are bare and a small field of colorful but somewhat blighted corn has been harvested into standing stacks. There’s also a withered garden. William has built a one-room thatched cottage and a goat-shed, but a larger barn is still under construction. Kate has had a new baby since the family settled here, a little boy named Samuel.
Unfortunately, with the family living in such isolated circumstances, Samuel hasn’t been baptized.
Thomasin is sitting out in the meadow playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother. While she holds her hands over her eyes, the baby disappears. There’s no one else in sight, and the family never learns what’s happened to him.
The viewer does see, and this demonstrates right at the beginning the kind of horror film we’re watching. It’s not gory, but it doesn’t hold back on what people like those in this film truly believed witches did. The flesh and blood of an unbaptized infant was said to be used by witches to make a potion that enabled them to fly.
An old woman carries the baby off through the woods and takes him to her hovel. She places him on a table and picks up a knife. That’s all we see, but the next scene shows her naked and mashing up a nasty-looking unguent. She uses this to anoint herself and her stick (not a broomstick), then she flies off into the night to join her coven.
The family is left to deal with this inexplicable tragedy. They tell themselves that a wolf got Samuel–but it doesn’t seem like any of them really believe it. Kate grieves and spends her nights praying instead of sleeping. It’s not just the loss of her child that distresses her, but the religious belief that she and her husband adhere to holds out the possibility that Samuel’s soul has gone to Hell.
When William takes Caleb hunting and checks the traps he’s placed in the woods, the boy questions his father about this belief. It seems to be a form of strict Calvinist Determinism: some people are the Elect and will go to Heaven, and some people are damned no matter what they do. William explains that they don’t know who is among the Elect and who isn’t–only God knows that–and since they can never find out where Samuel’s soul has gone, they shouldn’t think any more about it. Caleb thinks this is unfair, considering that Samuel was just a baby who couldn’t have done anything sinful yet. He’s also worried about where his own soul is going to end up.
During this scene, William also mentions what will be an important plot-point: he traded a silver cup, a family treasure which his wife brought with her from England, for pelts and the traps. Since Kate’s already upset enough about the baby, William asks Caleb not to tell her about this yet.
A hare appears and William shoots at it, but his gun backfires and sends him sprawling. They come home empty-handed. Because of the poor harvest, the family is getting short of food, and winter is approaching fast.
The twins, an obnoxious little pair, have taken to playing with the billy-goat, a rambunctious creature named Black Phillip. They let him out of the pen and chase him around, making up rhymes about him. They say that Black Phillip talks to them.
The hare is seen around the farm. While hares aren’t a prominent feature in American witch-lore, since there aren’t many of them in the New England area where most of our witch hysteria took place, they play a larger part in old English folk beliefs and superstitions; hares were one of the creatures witches were said to transform into when they wanted to get up to some mischief. This family would be well familiar with the idea and made uneasy by the sight of what, to modern eyes, is a cute little twitchy-nosed bunny. It would be further proof to them that there were witches about.
That afternoon, while Thomasin is washing her father’s muddy clothes in the nearby creek, Mercy gleefully tells her older sister, “I be the Witch of Wood.” She also makes several other remarks: “Black Phillip saith I can do what I like. Mother hates thee. I have seen [the witch] in her riding cloak, about the wood.”
Thomasin, tired of the relentless brattiness of the twins, turns this around to frighten the little girl in a typical big-sister way. No, Thomasin retorts, “I be the Witch of the Wood.” She says that she’s signed her name in the Devil’s book and gave him the unbaptized baby. “And I’ll vanish thee too if thou displeaseth me. Perchance I’ll boil and bake thee.”
It’s an understandable reaction, but not wise in this place and time.
The silver cup comes up again that evening at dinner, when Kate notices that it’s not on the shelf where it should be. She thinks Thomasin has taken it and lost it, and her resentment at her eldest daughter not keeping closer watch on the baby comes bubbling up. “Did a wolf vanish that too?”
Neither William nor Caleb speak up about the missing cup.
That night, up in the loft that serves as the children’s bedroom, the four of them sit silently and listen to their parents talking below. Kate wants to send Thomasin away into service with a family back at the colony.
There’s another issue here besides Kate’s resentment over the cup and the baby. Thomasin is no longer a little girl (She “hath begat the sign of her womanhood,” is how her mother puts it), and shouldn’t be sharing a pallet with her brother–he’s already sneaking peeks at her developing bosom. Not that the children really understand this aspect of it. Caleb only knows that he doesn’t want Thomasin, the member of his family that he’s closest to, to leave.
With the idea that it’s because they don’t have enough food, Caleb sneaks out before daylight the next morning with the horse and his father’s gun to go hunting for himself. Thomasin catches him and insists on going with him.
This is where the story seems the most Hansel-and-Gretel-ish, and where things take a sharp turn for the worse.
The two children are sharing a happy moment, remembering their lives in England (at least, Thomasin remembers; Caleb doesn’t). Then the dog sees that hare again and goes running off after it. Caleb runs after the dog. The horse is spooked and bolts, throwing Thomasin to the ground.
When she comes to, she’s alone and walks back to the farm. Now she’s lost the dog, the horse, and her brother, who seems to be Kate’s favorite among her children: Kate is going to blame Thomasin for this too.
Kate also blames William for bringing them all out here into the wilderness in the first place, and more so when he finally tells her about the cup.
Caleb, meanwhile, has been wandering through the woods until he finds the dog with its abdomen torn open. Next, he comes upon the witch’s hovel. The witch emerges from it–not an old crone now, but a beautiful young woman dressed like Red Ridinghood. Except that this is more like the wolf in disguise, but not as Granny. When she takes hold of the entranced but repulsed young boy to kiss him, the hand she places on his head is old and wrinkled.
Caleb returns home that stormy night, naked and incoherent. His mother and sister put him to bed and try to tend him. While William thinks this might be a natural illness, Kate is certain that it’s witchcraft. Kate also expresses a desire to go home–not just back to the colony, but all the way back to England.
The next day, Caleb wakes and starts screaming about Satan, and how the witch is kneeling on his stomach. Then he chokes up and in a moment reminiscent of Snow White, spits up a bloody apple, even though his mouth was clear minutes before. I think this is a reference to a lie he told his mother earlier about seeing an apple tree in the valley, since his father didn’t want her to know that they’d gone into the woods. And of course there’s an Adam and Eve and Original Sin element in it.
After the apple-spitting, Caleb cries out, “`Tis she!”
He doesn’t make clear who he means by “she,” but the twins take this opportunity to go all Crucible on Thomasin and accuse her of being the witch. They claim that Black Phillip told them “you put the Devil in Caleb, and that’s why he’s sick” along with a list of other accusations based on what she said to Mercy–that Thomasin stole the baby and gave him to Satan in the woods, that she signed the Devil’s book, that she turned the nanny-goat’s milk to blood.
William questions Thomasin, then sets all three children to kneel and pray beside their sick brother. But Mercy and Jonas are unable to complete the Lord’s Prayer and fall over twitching.
This is a brilliant scene, and the centerpiece of the film. The two little kids are flopping around as if in a fit, echoing Caleb’s cries that the witch is upon him. William, Kate, and Thomasin desperately recite the 23rd Psalm until Caleb joins them and goes into a state of religious ecstasy. The boy delivers a disturbingly sensual speech, considering that it’s coming from a 12-year-old, about being embraced by Christ: “Kiss me with the kisses of Thy Mouth. Take me to Thy Lap”.
Has he been saved? His soul, perhaps, but the poor boy collapses, dead.
Kate really blames Thomasin now and wants the girl out of her sight. William hauls Thomasin out of the house, but he still loves her and hopes that she can be saved and returned to God’s love. He pleads with her again to tell him the truth.
He doesn’t listen when she insists that she’s innocent, so Thomasin does give her father the truth–not about witchcraft, but on a number of other points that he doesn’t want to acknowledge. His lies that got her into trouble with her mother, for example, and his inability to provide for his family. She calls him a hypocrite. Then she tells him about the twins and their games with Black Phillip, and what Mercy said to her by the creek that day.
Since William doesn’t know who to believe, he tosses all three of his surviving children into the goat-shed and nails the door shut. He and Kate bury Caleb.
Later that night, he shows that he’s neither as hypocritical nor as inflexible as we might expect a man of his strict religious beliefs to be; he’s capable of admitting that he was wrong. He prays aloud in the yard, confessing that “It is my fault. I am infected with the filth of pride.” It’s because of his stubborness that his family is in this vulnerable position, where they are so isolated and in danger. He offers himself up if it will save his children from damnation, and even eats a handful dirt as an act of humility and penance. Thomasin watches him through a gap in the boarded-up door.
It’s a beautiful and touching gesture, and a great monologue scene. Far too late, alas.
During the night, Kate gets up out of bed while her husband lies asleep. The missing silver cup sits on the shelf and, when she turns, there are her lost sons, Caleb and Samuel. Caleb offers the baby to her, and she nurses it. Except that all is not as it appears; what she’s nursing is not a baby.
Out in the goat-shed, the old hag appears to the twins.
When William comes out the next morning, he finds the wall of the goat-shed has been torn open. The nanny-goats are dead and Thomasin is lying on the ground inside the pen beside them. There’s no sign of the twins. Before he can ask his remaining daughter what happened, William is rammed by Black Phillip.
Kate, not quite sane after her experience the previous night, blames Thomasin for William’s death too. She attacks the girl, accusing her of all sorts of horrible things beyond witchcraft and murder, like deliberately trying to seduce her brother and father. Thomasin hasn’t killed anyone yet, but she’s about to become a matricide in self-defense.
After that, what’s a blood-spattered and exhausted girl to do but go into the house and take a nap? When she wakes, it’s night. Thomasin understands that she’s entirely alone now, miles from civilization or any hope of help, not even with burying the bodies of her family. There is only herself left, and Black Phillip.
If the twins were telling the truth about the goat all along, can she make a bargain with him to save her life if not her soul?
What do I like about this film besides the language?
- The discussions of religion, that help to define what this family believe so we understand what they fear and why they do what they do to try and protect themselves.
- The scenes that show us that this was once a happy and loving family. Thomasin and Caleb have conversations by the stream and during their trip to the woods that show how close they are. Kate at one point does show some affection for her elder daughter, and tells William that she did not mean to become such a shrew. The twins were probably always awful, though.
- And then there’s the film’s ambiguity.
In spite of the scenes with the witch in the woods and the other supernatural events, a lot of what we see is open to more than one interpretation.
Is this lone family really beset by a witch, and has the Devil chosen to live among them in the form of a black goat for months just to capture a handful of souls? Or have they torn themselves apart through grief over the loss of Samuel–who might have been taken by a wolf–along with increasing witchcraft hysteria and suspicion, perhaps augmented by hallucinations from ergotism from that moldy corn they’ve been eating?
Are the twins simply horrible little brats playing games with their pet goat and making accusations against their big sister without understanding the damage they’re doing? Or is everything they’ve said about the witch and what Black Phillip tells them the truth? Are their convulsions a sham, hysterics, a spell cast upon them by the witch or Black Phillip, or is it Thomasin’s doing?
Is Thomasin a witch?
When I watch this film, my sympathies are with her, as a young girl in a difficult position who does some things that, while understandable, only make her situation worse. I believe she is innocent, until she’s left with no other choice: everything and everyone she cared about has been taken away from her and she can either die alone in the wilderness or sign up with the local coven and survive.
But while I was working on this review, I watched one of the extra feature on the BluRay, a Q&A session with the director and Anya Taylor-Joy just after the film was first shown in Salem, Massachusetts. (On the panel with them was a local historian and witch-trial expert named Trask, which delights me for Dark Shadows reasons.) During the discussion, to my surprise, the director said that Thomasin was the witch.
I watched The VVitch again with that in mind. Obviously, she doesn’t make her pact with Satan until the very end, but it does cast her behavior during that scene with Mercy by the stream and during Caleb’s fit in a different light. She doesn’t finish saying the Lord’s Prayer either. Are we looking at Determinism in action? Was this where Thomasin’s soul was headed all along?
What don’t I like? While most of cinematography is very beautiful if bleak, a couple of important scenes are much too dark.
Inside the witch’s hovel, so the director’s commentary informs me, are all sorts of interesting objects of use to the witch in her craft… but the lighting is so dim that they can’t be seen.
At the end, the Devil appears as a handsome man dressed in what we’re told is an elegant Cavalier’s suit of black velvet and black lace–but you can barely see his face when he stands behind Thomasin as she signs his book. All that fancy costumery goes to waste. In this same scene, the goat’s hoof transforms into a man’s silver-spurred boot, and I didn’t notice that at all until it was mentioned in the commentary.