I saw the movie The Witch with a friend earlier this week. It’s a fantastic horror film, well made, artfully filmed, terrifying enough that I actually said “No no no no no don’t go in there with that goat!” out loud in the theater. It was very well acted, and had excellent research into the folk tales and legendary witch stories from Puritan New England depicted in well-crafted dialogue based on writings from the time.
And yet…the scariest parts of the movie to me were not so much the creepy witch from the woods who wanders about naked and uses baby moisturizer– and by baby moisturizer I don’t mean moisturizer made for babies. Aveeno and Johnson&Johnson doesn’t manufacture this stuff.
It wasn’t even the warping of religion to mistrust those around us and accuse others of perceived sin or the frolicking goat devil or even the super creepy brilliantly voice acted Black Phillip (the aforementioned goat devil) when he turns into the version of the devil common to stories from that time period.
No, the scariest parts of the movie to me were the general, every day constant threats of life in a time before antibiotics and chemically softened toilet paper and bulk superstore memberships that are far more terrifying than the bad kind of Voldemort magic: tetanus, frostbite, starvation, being eaten by predatory animals, tapeworms, hoof and mouth disease, gangrene, and so on and so on.
This movie made me want to sing the score to Into the Woods and then retreat to a corner of a well lit, chemically sanitized room, eating sticks of butter from Costco.
I mean, really, no wonder the witches communed with the devil– he had butter. BUTTER, people. I couldn’t help leaving the large (and mostly empty on a rainy Wednesday night) temperature regulated movie theatre in suburban Westchester County, picturing the goat on his hind legs in the Yonkers Costco buying butter in bulk for his coven, and one would assume, Kirkland brand toilet paper to handle all the resulting oily butter poos, his cloven hooves clattering on the concrete floor while he impulse buys packs of toothbrushes that are on sale and whatever salty treat is being handed out as samples– I mean, he does want to “live deliciously” as he quotes to the female protagonist.
He doesn’t actually show her the butter, a la Jerry McGuire’s “show me the money,” which I think is a failure in the devil’s argument. In fact, theologians could probably argue that the devil’s offers seldom show the actual proverbial butter (does he even HAVE a Costco membership?!).
I’d gone to see this movie for two reasons:
1) I like to be scared just a little, and when it’s a movie that is scary in part because the woods aren’t regulated by the National Park Services and real-life Leslie Knope who would, you know, mark the paths and prohibit stuff like squatters building witch huts and setting poorly controlled fires for their flying coven meetings
2) it was billed as a feminist movie, and that the main character isn’t bound by traditional horror film depictions of big breasted blondes running upstairs from the bad guy.
I think the movie is great on point 1, but on point 2, it misses a lot. In part because the protagonist, Thomasin, is still a blond, blue eyed white girl who’s got it going on on the looks department, but doesn’t always make decisions in a well-thought through, logical manner (note my aforementioned talking to the movie screen about engaging goat devils in conversation).
I also get that Puritan New England was an oppressive time and place for young women, but in much of the movie, any painting of her as standing up to the establishment (here just her mom and dad as the family was banished for the dad’s heresy) reads a bit more as teen angst. If they’d had more than one door in their sad farm shack, she probably would have slammed the one to her bedroom (if she’d had a bedroom and not just attic storage full of kids), and thrown herself on her bed (if she’d had a bed and not just a pile of filthy blankets she shared with other siblings) and listened to Taylor Swift.
Perhaps the biggest oppressive force of the Puritans, aside from burning human beings alive for highly suspect reasons, was that their teen girls had no pop-country stars to tell them that their feelings are real and normal, and they need to be who they are and also Kanye West is an idiot.
And as Thomasin is “freed” from the patriarchy when her family is brutally murdered by a combination of actual witches, goat devil, the elements, infection, ambiguous “witchery” and a big [expletive deleted] kitchen knife wielded by Thomasin herself, she doesn’t leave and go live with the Iroquois in a matriarchal land sharing society that was largely influential on the founding fathers concept of a new democracy until being handed a smallpox blanket.
No, she goes into the barn and communes with the goat devil. So she still needs a man to save her. And apparently, give her butter and promise her fancy new dresses which we don’t see because she wanders naked into the woods irrespective of brambles to meet his other naked (and clearly butter-less) harem of deceived women.
At this point in the movie, as the goat devil literally frolicks while she tiptoes around literal brambles because she didn’t see to it that the dress part of the contract with the devil was fulfilled in a timely fashion–seriously, horror film makers, can we get some witches who excel at contract negotiation? She joins the other ladies in a contemporary dance improv troupe that morphs into aerial performance art. I can just see them trying to get their acting class friends to go see their routine set to an Ani Difranco song in a warehouse in Gowanus. “Um…yeah, I…have a thing…but you’ll be greeeaaaaat!”
The devil won, and therefore, the [expletive deleted] patriarchy did too, no matter how much Don Henley sings about the moon in her eyes.