We’re getting started this week with “The Witch” (2015), a debut feature film both written and directed by Robert Eggers, who previously worked primarily as a set and costume designer. His attention to historical design details serves him well in this period piece set in 1630. The dialogue is spot on for the era and contributes greatly to both the colonial creepiness and the believable religious fervor of the characters. If you haven’t seen this film before, you’re in for an amazing treat. It’s got all sorts of interesting things going on.
The events in the film take place just ten years after the landing of the Mayflower, so this is New England when it really was “new” and it really was “England.” The story follows a devout Puritan family as they are exiled from their settlement for vague crimes that have offended the town elders, but the separation seems mutual. These are people who pray almost constantly and repent of sins like secretly playing on the Sabbath and having bad thoughts. As the outcasts of the outcasts, the family goes to live in an isolated cottage on the edge of a dark and forbidding forest. It’s the perfect setup for a spooky tale. No wonder the subtitle of this movie is “a New-England Folktale.”
As you might expect, things in the movie soon take a turn for the weird. I don’t want spoil of the surprises, so I won’t give too much away here, but the next scene in the film represents what screenwriters and filmmakers often call the “inciting incident,” or that moment early in any story where the main plot starts and the protagonist is thrown into circumstances outside of their control. Urgent action becomes required. Even if you’ve never heard this moment called an inciting incident, you’ve watched enough movies to recognize this scene when you see it.
Now, before you even see “The Witch,” I want us to start thinking about what turns an ordinary movie into a horror film. That is, how do you know when you’re watching a horror movie? It’s a question we’ll consider during the next few weeks.
One of the main things a horror movie does is to make us afraid. Hence the label “horror.” Horror movies force their characters (and us, by extension as the viewers) to confront the terrifying unknown. They can start accomplishing this goal in any number of ways – by shocking us with violence or gore, by surprising us with a “jump scare,” by initiating suspense through “dramatic irony” (when the audience knows things that the characters in the scene don’t), or by unsettling us with the “uncanny.” I’ll spend more time in this series talking about all of these ideas, but for now just know that the uncanny is the creepy juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar. But all of these things ways that a movie can signal to us that it is a horror film.
Next, it’s important for us to consider how movies use camera angles and edit cuts between images not just to show us things but also to communicate larger ideas about the characters and the world they inhabit. When we are shown different images in a row, our brains naturally start to create relationships between those things and also start to create (or follow) a narrative thread.
Because we just naturally do this as humans, filmmakers are able to convey very subtle ideas with their editing choices – what images they show us in which order. For example, we quickly pick up on clues about whether the camera is showing us things from a neutral or objective point of view, or whether we’re supposed to understand that we’re seeing something from the more subjective point of view of a particular character.
And not only can we intuitively tell objective from subjective camera shots, but we’re so good at this skill that filmmakers can play with shifting perspectives to give us emotional responses. They can make us happy, show us love or anger, confuse us, scare us, or cause all sorts of reactions. Of course, as experienced movie watchers, we intuitively understand a lot of these things. We’re not consciously interpreting each image. But as we start to analyze films, we want to notice these choices about what we’re being shown and how we’re meant to interpret what we’re seeing.
That’s enough film theory to digest for now, but it will be important to keep in mind as you watch “The Witch” because this movie shows us things from several different perspectives. Sometimes the film feels like we’re seeing things from a neutral, objective point of view. Sometimes we see things from the point of view of a single character. And sometimes we see things that aren’t “real” in an objective sense but that we’re meant to understand as taking place the imagination of one or more characters.
As we start to analyze “The Witch” and begin to talk about what happens in this movie, we will need visual points of view as a reference to help explain and justify our various interpretations. This film should spark some lively discussions.