This is the tale of Mary Webster, accused of witchcraft and hung. But that wasn't the end.
Adam MacDonald's latest movie discusses mental illness and grief through a lens of modern witchcraft.
The Craft. 1996. Directed by Andrew Fleming. Screenplay by Peter Filardi & Fleming.
Starring Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich, Christine Taylor, Breckin Meyer, Nathaniel Marston, Cliff De Young, Assumpta Serna, Helen Shaver, Jeanine Jackson, & Brenda Strong. Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
The 1990s were an underrated time for horror. Certainly not the best decade, but most certainly not appreciated enough. An era that gave us Scream, Braindead, Hardware, It, Nightbreed, The Blair Witch Project and other lesser loved bits of horror cinema such as Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, among many other titles. Particularly with Craven’s Scream there was a new renewal in the studios’ interests to cater towards the youth market. Not that they ever stopped. Yet The Craft is a coming-of-age tale, wrapped up in the fantasy of witchcraft and packaged in a neatly bowed horror romp. And while this definitely comes off as a movie marketed towards teenagers, looking back on it 20 years later it’s more than just a teen horror flick. Inside the story of four witches who come together during high school there are themes of good, evil, innocence, guilt, and plenty of other interesting subjects. With a solid cast in the four main women this horror goes further than being relegated to being a horror ‘chick flick’ or a movie better left back in adolescence. Director Andrew Fleming’s first film was the trippy 1988 horror Bad Dreams, but after The Craft he really abandoned horror for comedy and television mostly. Too bad. Because between those two horrors he has a talent for the macabre. This story of four young witches is better than a casual movie to give you a little creep, it has lots of terror to offer, making high school appear even more violent, volatile and nerve wracking than it has been since Carrie.
Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) and her family move to a new city. She’s had plenty of tragedy in life, as her mother is dead and her father tries his best to raise a teenage girl. Things get intense once Sarah meets three girls rumoured to be witches – Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True), and their fiesty little leader Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk). Slowly, the young women come together in a quartet and finally realize all their collective powers, summoned from the deep darkness.
What follows begins as a group of friends exploring their natural talents, an antiquated power in a modern world.
However, soon enough the ugly head of competition appears, and Nancy doesn’t like that Sarah’s powers are stronger than the other girls. And this sets off a deadly series of events which Sarah must either stop, or be swept up in. Is her power truly the strongest? Or does Nancy hold the full power of the occult and Hell at her fingertips?
The theme of outsiders is clearly central here. And it’s all amped up even more. First, you’ve got a group of teenage girls; from boys to interpersonal relationships to the general race of high school to win popularity and acceptance. Then they’re also witches, sitting on the fringe of society, both as a whole and in the microcosm of grade school. Plus, there’s periods, and mean boys, and mean girls. Added to all of that, each of the main girls has their own issue. Nancy (Balk) is poor, dealing with a stepfather whose interests lie a little too close to his wife’s daughter. Rochelle (True) is black and has to face the ignorant racism of a lily white girl that says she doesn’t “like negroids.” Bonnie (Campbell) has scar tissue all over her body, it makes her self-conscious and the treatments to try curing her are extremely painful. Finally, Sarah (Tunney) laments the death of her mother, and it’s obvious she’s filled with dark, sometimes suicidal thoughts. So part of why The Craft touched me deeply, as a drama mixed with horror, is because we’re essentially watching four young women who want to escape from their dreary reality. They want something better, something bigger, and they get it. How many of us didn’t want to make the bullies at school pay? Well here we live vicariously through Rochelle, whose spell makes the popular blonde girl’s hair start falling out, and through Sarah who puts a heavy love spell on a guy that spread dirty rumours about her, and so on. Each of their experiences brings to light the experience of many as young people, as students, as growing men and women in the world. I saw this movie when I was about 11 and it spoke to me because I was a weird kid, one that stood as part of a group that didn’t play hockey or weren’t the cool kids, so seeing these four witches go through their own experiences, it simultaneously spoke to my own feelings as a loser or an outcast. This is a major reason why The Craft‘s fans are hardcore, loving ones, because this isn’t only a fantastical horror flick about young witches, it has a heart and like many awesome horror movies there is more than meets the eye.
Let’s face it – the cast would’ve never been so iconic and exciting if these four ladies weren’t in the film. As an antagonist, Balk’s Nancy Downs is perfect. She is beautiful and weird, then also terrifying at the same time. She can switch on a dime from being sort of cute in an oddball way to becoming overwhelmingly horrific. Part of why her charater works is because Balk has a unique look. So with all her charisma and energy, she brings a wildness to the cast. In addition, Balk is an actual Wiccan, so she provided insight during the filming when possible. Our protagonist is equally wonderful. Tunney’s Sarah is a calm, quiet type, and after she becomes involved with the other girls develops a more outgoing personality. Tunney provides a relateable personality to which we can anchor ourselves going forward, and she allows us a type of center. We latch onto her because of her problems. Then once the witchcraft stuff spirals out of control at the hands of Nancy, there’s a very good v. evil vibe because of Sarah portraying the near polar opposite character. With these two actresses at the helm, alongside Campbell and True as sidekicks, as well as 90s staple Skeet Ulrich in a decent little supporting role that adds fire to the plot, The Craft is a step above many of the other youth-marketed movies during the decade because of its stellar acting.
The finale of the film is perhaps my favourite. Because everything devolves so quickly, then a real horrorshow takes place. Like a fever dream filled to the brim by witchcraft and jealousy and youthful rage.
With a nice finish, and plenty of eeriness along the way, The Craft is most definitely, in my books, a 4-star flick. It has dark fantasy, moody teen issues, heavy themes, a knockout cast, and ends with an unsettling ride. In a decade that has many underappreciated works of horror cinema, the 1990s provided us with one of the better movies on witchcraft out there. Too many will try and discredit the film, saying it’s a ‘safe’ teen horror. There’s nothing safe about this one, though. Tackling everything from suicide to race to rape to teen angst, The Craft stands its ground as a contemporary piece of horror with a razor sharp set of teeth.
The Witch. 2015. Directed & Written by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, & Wahab Chaudhry. Parts and Labor/RT Features/Rooks Nest Entertainment/Code Red Productions/Scythia Films/Maiden Voyage Pictures/Mott Street Pictures/Pulse Films/Special Projects.
Rated 14A. 93 minutes.
People will tell you that The Witch is overhyped, that critics are simply trying to sell Robert Eggers’ feature film debut as something more than it really is, or rather that anyone calling the movie a modern horror masterpiece is, to put it plainly, full of shit. I’ll put my two cents in to say Eggers has made an impressive, unapologetic horror about witchcraft, religion, repression, and above all paranoia. Eggers’ talent is enormous as a director, not to mention he brings with him the further talents of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who will no doubt see a spike in his being booked for future films), as well as a host of others who elevated this picture to its level of art. The quiet and subtle essence of the film is its strongest point. Around the edges of all the amazing cinematography and direction is a score from composer Mark Korven, which at times calls to mind classic horror films and at others brings its own feeling while keeping you on edge, engrossed in the moment and continually wondering what may come next. There are so many things to love about The Witch, from its look and entire atmosphere to the cast whose willingness to go all in on the characters makes each scene worth relishing.
The year is 1630. In New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) live as devout Christians, so much so that they do not fit in with the colony, and William’s refusal to conform with the church sends them out into the wild on their own with their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson), as well as the newborn infant Samuel.
After settling into their new life, one day Thomasin plays with the baby. But out of nowhere, Samuel goes missing. They search for aweek for the child, to no avail. While Katherine is distraught, blaming Thomasin for the disappearance, the children believe it is a witch hiding out in the forest, stealing and eating babies. William, steadfast in his religious ways, assures Katherine of their favour with God, that he is merely testing them. However, once Thomasin goes into the woods hunting with Caleb, and only she returns, the search is on once more. Only this time, even William begins to suspect his daughter may have been wed to the devil.
As religious paranoia and repression take hold, the family’s land becomes haunted. And the devil slowly but surely creeps his way into their hearts and minds.
I’ll admit, maybe Eggers isn’t for all horror fans. My expectations, though they were huge and still paid off, were also subverted, completely. There were many times I expected things to happen, or the plot to go a certain way, yet Eggers defied me at nearly every turn. There isn’t anything particularly revolutionary in terms of plot here, but the way in which it plays out is lots of terrifying, horrific fun. The dialogue may be a problem for some, as I’m sure not every horror fan will enjoy the Early Modern English dialogue. But that’s part of why I love the screenplay, we truly feel in the time and part of what makes everything so scary is that the story feels real. So all the different elements to the movie make each aspect seem true to life. Part of what sometimes angers me in period pieces is that the characters don’t speak properly for that period in time (we see much of this similarly in films that have people supposedly Russian or German speaking English only with the respective accents; another piss off we sometimes have to endure for Hollywood to make the stories they want). The Witch brushes that off by having the dialogue all in Early Modern English, which drives home, along with so much of the natural-looking cinematography, the authenticity. Furthermore, I love the way Eggers keeps us guessing. Without revealing too much of any actual plot detail, other than the obvious, what intrigued me most is that we’re never quite sure whether or not what we see is reality, if everything in each scene is truly taking place. At least not until the plot develops more and certain events (see: Caleb and the apples) force us to realize exactly what is happening. Again, not an overly fresh idea as a whole, but certainly Eggers takes it and puts his spin on it, absolutely providing us with a fresh take on an old tale. And the fact there was lots of research put into the writing in terms of looking at actual records (et cetera) from the period that still remain, folktales and other bits of writing as well, only makes the movie more enjoyable for its attempts at getting things right.
The dark beauty of the film is very much a result of Eggers’ direction, Jarin Blaschke on duty as cinematographer, and Mark Korven creating a tense, moody score to compliment their work. Even shots of the forest itself seem ominous, as it stands tall and shadowy in the midst of day, the stands of trees casting a deep sorrow within the woods. Putting Korven’s score on top, Eggers shows us ominous, foreboding frames of the vast wilderness, which itself almost becomes as terrifying as the witch out there. The natural lighting of the interior scenes, inside the family’s small barn or its main house, casts everything in long shadows, flickering on the walls and on the faces of the characters; again, this technique amplifies the authentic feeling of the entire film. The rich texture of the movie’s look makes things feel perfect, as if you’re right there in the trees watching them go by, right next to William as he chops wood, or in the field with the children playing.
Best of all, though, are the brief and unsettling scenes where we see the witch herself. Barely do we ever get a straight look at her, but still, she is a devilish presence. Very early on we’re treated to a scene where she mashes up what we’re to believe is a baby, smearing its blood all over her body, all over a large thin tree, and every last bit of this is covered in shadow, so that there’s barely much you can see. What you do see is disturbing. It sets the tone for everything to come. Another aspect of the film I dig, that Eggers gets the macabre atmosphere going almost from the start, within very little time. So much so there is rarely a moment without tension, not many moments where you’ll feel able to breathe a sigh of relief. Just another reason this film is a modern work of horror art.
Aside from the technical aspects, The Witch is dominated by powerful acting. Each of the actors brings their role to life, even the young kids who add their own authenticity to the scenes. Particularly, both Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy are magic here, as they are both faithful, religious people in their own rights, but who end up walking down quite different paths. Taylor-Joy does spectacular work with the character of Thomasin, which isn’t easy, and especially once the finale arrives I found myself hooked on her eyes; watching just her face in those last few minutes will chill any warm heart. Ineson is perfection as William, a man trying to keep his faith and family together as one, and a father confronted with the ultimate evil at his doorstep, invading his home; his delivery of lines will keep you glued, even if Early Modern English troubles you, as he can reel you in with just a look, a motion. Two excellent performances heading an already solid cast.
5 stars go to Robert Eggers and . Everyone in the theatre with me today seemed transfixed, whether they liked it or not. Certainly this isn’t a film for everyone, and those looking for a modern horror with all the modern cliches will be disappointed. Likewise, don’t go in expecting the same thing as It Follows or The Babadook, two other notable modern horror movies that did well recently. The Witch is entirely its own brand, despite taking on a timeworn sub-genre in witchcraft. This creeped me out royally at many points and I’m liable to see this again someday soon, as the atmosphere and the entire production itself really hit the spot, I’d love to experience it another time around. Until it hits Blu ray; then I’ll watch it to death, whether I die or the disc dies first remains to be seen.
This infamous 1971 Ken Russell picture will forever live on in wonderful heresy.