The Witch

Moral of my story: Don’t go see this on your own in an empty cinema.

What makes a horror film a horror film? In the past week or so I’ve heard both praise for this film and a good degree of backlash. Many felt that it wasn’t a horror film, that it wasn’t scary enough and that it was too slow. As a dedicated Wittertainee I’d heard Mark Kermode champion the film stating that ‘the greatest strength of The Witch –that the audience will see in what they want to see, or believe’  So, when a bit of free time opened up in my schedule I thought ‘why not?’ Even after three nights where by sleep has been haunted by a goat called Black Phillip I do not regret my decision, as The Witch is an immensely rich watch and an outstanding debut from its director and writer Robert Eggers.

In 1630 a farmer called William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are excommunicated from their New England community due to the crime of “prideful conceit”. He and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) must raise their children away from the community they came with when they left England and now live in exile in a forest. They have five children – teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the cusp of adolescence Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and new-born Samuel.  One day, when Thomasin is looking after ber youngest sibling and playing a round of peek-a-boo, Samuel disappears. The family is utterly devastated and grief takes its toll, bringing tensions to the surface and testing both the love and loyalty of each of the family members. Is a supernatural force of evil haunting them or is it all imagined?

The greatest choice, of many, that this film makes is to show Samuel’s disappearance to the audience. The audience gets to see a witch, possibly the witch of the title or possibly not, drag poor little baby Samuel into the forest with her. The characters, however, do not get to see this. It’s a classic case of dramatic tension that is oh so effective – this comparatively small piece of information alters how we view the characters and makes us assess then repeatedly reassess what we are seeing. The knowing what actually happened to Samuel lets us watch the consequences with a layer of cynicism, as the family falls apart at the seams. How the dynamics of the family shift and tear creates a deeper level of both atmosphere and tension as we know something they do not. When the blame shifts to teenager Thomasin we automatically defend her. For her family she is the obvious target of blame, after all she was watching him when he disappeared, yet we know that she isn’t. Or is she? As the film plays out the audience is forced to question what they actually know, or if what they actually know is not the whole story.

All of the cast are fantastic, not a single weak link. Ineson is solid as the righteous father who may have let his ego take his family onto a path of destruction. Dickie is wonderful as the grieving mother who doesn’t know where to turn. Taylor-Joy is an extraordinary presence as a girl who has come of age, and how this very fact will change her life. The Witch is rich for cinematic analysis, most obviously the treatment young women which is seemingly reflective of how life would have been for someone of her age in 1630. Scrimshaw possess the kind of face and aura of someone who has lived a thousand lives, a real one-to-watch. The twins are as creepy as you would expect from a film of this sort. That just leaves us with the aforementioned Black Phillip. I’m even going to add a picture here of the beast, just to prove my point.

BlackPhillip

Look at him. Just look at him! I genuinely believe there should be a category added to the award ceremonies next year for, ‘scariest performance by an animal’ as Black Phillip would be a solid contender. At this point I’m not even going to tell you what he does, nor will I hint. I don’t think I could even describe it in a manner that would reflect in a  succinct enough manner the terror this beast is capable of. Just like the rest of the film, he gets under-your-skin and into-your-brain.

The Witch is a spooky, slow-release terror that is well worth seeing. Few newcomers could create a film with this depth of atmosphere and tension. I already look forward to what Robert Eggers has to offer us next.

Crimson Peak

A film review/love letter for Guillermo Del Toro’s macabre masterpiece.

Finally. Six months in and 40 reviews written this film comes along. A Neo-Gothic epic. This is my kind of movie. The Gothic is arguably one of cinemas most underappreciated genres. This is a huge error as the tropes of the Gothic allow itself to become the truest articulation of the psychological state. Guillermo Del Toro knows this. He’s made a career of it. And this film could be his mainstream opus. The intent and scope of Crimson Peak is worthy of the highest praise: the end product astonishingly beautiful.

As an aspiring author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) revels in Romantic turmoil.  Her father Carter (Jim Beaver) is devoted to her and her literary exploits; having lost his wife when Edith was ten he is all too aware of the loss and pain that love can bring. His protective paternal instincts kick in when a mysterious stranger arrives into town. Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) intent is to persuade self-industrialist Carter to invest in his machinery – it’s the last hope for he and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to restore their family estate. Carter takes an instant dislike to the Sharpe siblings; upon observing Thomas’s intent towards his daughter he becomes determined to drive them apart. However, when tragedy strikes, Edith and Thomas are pushed further together – they marry and brings her to England. Upon arrival at Allerdale Hall, observing the decrepit building and the red clay-tainted oil that desecrates the landscape, Edith realises that she must try and escape the ghosts of the past and the threats in her future.

It is impossible to over-appreciate what Del Toro has achieved here. He has utilised the motifs of the genre – the double, the spiral staircase, the brooding stranger and the desperate maiden clasping at a candle which represents her life – to create a gloriously grotesque tribute to the original 1940s Gothics whilst utilising contemporaneous cinematic creativity. The Gothic triumphed in literature during the early 1800s, and peaked in cinema during the 1940s. Though set in the same era the filmic versions of the Gothic reflected the fears of the then-present. Women were leaving the household and entering the workplace; then forced back into the home when they returned from war. Unsurprisingly there was a flux of marriages; women agreeing to marry men they had just meet believing they would not return from war. Yet so of them did, and these women realised the once-romantic gesture had in fact resulted in their being married to strangers. Films like Rebecca, The Spiral Staircase, Secret Beyond The Door and Sleep, My Love utilised this intrinsic, yet utterly understandable fear to great effect. What united them thematically was a narrative that echoed Charles Perrault’s folktale Bluebeard – what is essentially a fable warning women against marrying alluring strangers. Why this is all relevant is because few new films, one that are not reliant on being literary adaptions, even attempt to make a film in this style – let alone join the canon.

An unholy union is made between set, music, cinematography and mise-en-scene. The sets in particular are astonishing and breath-taking – with so much to see it becomes almost overwhelming, echoing the confusion of our maiden in distress.  Crimson Peak is a product of passion. Every aspect has clearly been carefully chosen and with love, which pays off ten-fold in the film’s visceral emotive impact. Combined Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain make a character triangle which entraps the viewer – ensnaring them in this house of fear. This is a world where ghosts breathe and houses bleed. Melodramatic? Yes. Unashamedly and unabashedly so. Whether the film ultimately gets lost at this point, with a third act that becomes overwhelmed by pastiche, is up for personal debate. Ultimately this film is delightfully creepy – with sumptuous sets, creepy casts and unforgettable visuals – it’s an archaic yet inviting film that demands watching.

A true auteur can provide the audience a return journey to another realm. It may not be a realm we would chose to escape to – as is this case it could be a world of terror and fear – yet it was one we are fully immersed in and find the greatest beauty within. Then we are returned – shaken, frightened, bleary-eyed yet grinning. Go watch Crimson Peak and experience it for yourself.

Sicario

The Closest We’ll get to Cinematic Masterpiece this year?

This film is unlike any other. It’s intelligent, provocative and deeply haunting. Shot and told with expert precision whilst feeding on audience paranoia and helplessness – this is not a film for the faint of heart. There are few films that have been, or that will be, released this year that will end with you leaving the cinema drained and exhausted (in a good way at least…)

Idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a kidnapping raid in Chandler, Arizona that results in a discovery far bigger and much more gruesome than was expected. Her findings cause Kate’s boss (Victor Garber) to recommend her to an elected government task force which has a sole focus of the ever-escalating war against drugs on either side of the US – Mexico border. After a brief interview Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) offers her the position, using her emotional ties to her previous case as reasoning to join his team. His team promises results far greater than those she can achieve in her current position, plus a chance to find and punish those involved in the tragedy she unintentionally unearthed. She accepts immediately.  Kate’s FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) is instantly distrustful of Matt and fearful for his partner’s well-being. Kate squashes his concerns, but when she arrives for her first day of work she realises how little she know and how little Matt will actually want to tell her. The unexplained arrival of mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) furthers these worries, as does their preceding to fly with her to a different destination than the one declared to her and concealing their purpose for being there. Was Reggie right to have been so worried for Kate? Will Kate get to make the difference she wanted to? Will she even make it out alive? 

What truly makes this film enter the threshold into ‘great’ is the components that make it so taut, tense and thrilling. The acting is masterful – Blunt is understatedly brilliant as the at-times frustrating but always sympathetic Kate, Brolin’s Matt oozes charm with dark undertones and Del Toro lurks on the outskirts so intriguingly that his gradually revealed character arc is utterly enthralling. The music, and the superbly well-chosen moments when it is absent, frame each sequences with an eerie sense of both danger and inevitability. Not a shot or piece of dialogue is wasted – everything either contributes to the plot or the power of it. Aerial shots revel not in the landscape, but instead reveal the depth of the poverty and crime and the sheer vastness of it.

Where the film builds and retains most of its power is in its message. Whilst easy from trailers and posters to misconstrue as just another social-issue drama or drug-related thriller, Sicario has much more to offer. Few films have tackled the ‘war on drugs’ with such informed perception of the grey area surrounding it. The primary question is of lawlessness – who are the good guys in this war and who can be trusted? Most importantly – when the do the ends stop justifying the means? This is reflected upon in such a spectacularly suspenseful manner; it is rare to find a film that can leave an audience so fantastically haunted.

If you’re looking to spend two-hours in a realm of dread, brutality and nerve-destroying darkness then commit to numb ruminating…you’d best go buy your ticket!