Monday 14 March 2016
2V Or Not 2V
Directed by Robert Eggers
UK cinema release print.
“There’s a creepy VVitch, in your neighbour’s wood.
Who you gonna call? Goat Busters.”
Traditional New England Folk Song
I’ve been looking forward to seeing The VVitch, subtitled A New England Folk Tale, for a while now, not knowing quite what to expect from it. I’d have to say that, what it delivered, while maybe not as over the top as the trailer at first seems to promise, is actually quite a nice little genre movie. However, before I go on to elaborate on this, I have to say that I was not seeing this film in the most ideal circumstances... bizarrely.
I saw The VVitch in my local cinema on the first night of its official UK run which, frankly, you would maybe be forgiven for assuming, as did I, that this would be the absolutely best place to see said film. Not so. Well, certainly if I’d have been in the cinema alone, it might have done the trick. Unfortunately, this film has got to have had one of the worst audience reactions I’ve ever been witness to. In terms of horror movies I’ve seen in cinemas, I’d had three audiences which stuck in my mind up to this point. The first was the original cinema run of the zombie spoof Return Of The Living Dead back in the 1980s, where the full house audience were collectively screaming and laughing throughout the movie in all the right places... a magical experience. The Blair Witch Project provoked a reaction in the audience of general disappointment, at least on one of the screenings I went to, although I really loved that movie also. The first Paranormal Activity film was the third one that sticks in my mind. It’s a great film, although, not that scary but I‘ll never forget the audience and the lady who ran from the front of the screen, screaming loudly as she dashed for the rear exit.
Well I can add The VVitch to memorable audience reactions in a screening. I was kinda enjoying the movie for what it was but, after about fifteen walkouts from the mid-point of the movie onwards, I began to notice that the audience were getting so badly behaved they were even talking back to the screen and clapping mockingly in certain sections. They started off at bored and ran the gamut through to generally ridiculing everything on screen as it happened... about the only moment which seemed to stun them was a small scene involving a crow which, I have to say, I didn’t actually myself find scary but which managed to shut them up for a minute or so. At the end of the movie and from the feedback I was hearing all around me, I think if they’d have been armed with something they were able to throw at the screen then I suspect they would have been pelting it for all it was worth.
Now, as I said, I quite enjoyed the movie but this didn’t make for the most ideal cinema experience in the world, to be honest. I was trying to figure out afterwards what set off a mass of nearly two hundred people (the film was pretty well attended) to act this way and I can only assume it’s the lack of shock/jump scares that customers have come to expect from modern horror movies combined with a certain intensity surrounding the lack of anything scary really happening a lot of the time that maybe caused the unrest. I’m not qualified in a psychological capacity to be able to fathom what caused this collective outrage, to be honest, but that’s my theory. For whatever the reason... it wasn’t pretty.
The film itself concerns a family of six: Kate Dickie (I’ve always had a soft spot for Kate) as the mother, Ralph Ineson as the father, the oldest daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (pretty much the main protagonist, given that it’s very much an ensemble piece), the next eldest brother Caleb, played by Harvey Scrimshaw, a very young brother and sister and a baby boy. Set in New England of 1630, the family are banished from their community due to, as far as I could make out, being too fervent in the practice of their Christian religion. So they take their leave and build their own small farm far from the people who have thrown them out, next to a wood. Of course, it’s a wood housing a witch, or so they believe.
One day, Thomasin is in the field next to the wood when the newborn suddenly vanishes, almost before her eyes. This is the first hint of a supernatural phenomenon in the film and it’s an important one, backed up by the appearance of a more tangible presence in the wood about halfway through the movie. This is because, later in the film, when we are witness to exactly the same kind of paranoid accusations in microcosm that bring to mind Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (not a favourite of mine, it has to be said), the audience does at least have some idea that there is, indeed, something uncanny going on. This isn’t a film about hysteria... this is a bonafide horror film and those two sequences I mentioned are the main clues to begin with, along with certain visual signifiers which are strengthened by this knowledge.
For instance, the brilliant way in which the camera’s eye focuses on certain animals in the movie is disquieting. It’s as if the director is saying to us... look here, these are supernaturally possessed creatures and that’s what’s going on here. These are witches’ familiars, which feature in lots of tales of this ilk, and the camera brings the same kind of unmoving and sharp focussed intensity in the study of these creatures as it does when focussing unflinchingly on the various actors in this movie. So the goat which is featured so heavily on posters and in the trailers, known as ‘Black Philip’, is an obvious indicator of satanism afoot but it’s the rabbit which keeps turning up and fixing the camera with a stare which really works so effectively in some of the earlier scenes.
The acting by the cast mentioned above is first rate... and that even includes the two younger siblings Mercy and Jonas played by Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson. In fact, there’s a point in the movie when you wonder if you should really be hating these two or whether they are just victims of their circumstances like everyone else in the movie. When things start to go pear shaped at the end, the director leaves it to your imagination as to what exactly is their final fate.
Now, it has to be said that the content of the film as written is not, really, in any way scary, to be honest. For the majority of the time it’s more like a study of the breakdown of a family unit which just happens to involve a strong supernatural element in its genetic make up. What makes it scary in certain places... or at least unsettling... is that composer Mark Koven’s score is absolutely astonishingly good. Two of my all time favourite pieces of music are by composer György Ligeti (both were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in part, as a matter of fact), Lux Aeterna and his Requiem for Soprano and Mezzo-soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra (which I was lucky enough to catch in concert once). Koven’s score conjures up exactly that kind of atmosphere for The VVitch, perfectly unsettling the audience with a kind of presence of creeping dread which can then be ratcheted up to 11 when the choir comes on more strongly at certain points. Absolutely wonderful and the first thing I did when I came home on the Friday evening after I saw it was to place an order for the CD recording. I can’t wait to hear this one away from the movie... it’s going to get a heck of a lot of spins this year and might even end up being my number one pick of scores for 2016. Time will tell, I guess.
The end of the movie is pretty near perfect as well. Now the bizarrely behaved audience I saw this with seemed to be really complaining about the ending of this one right after it finished but, honestly, I can’t think why. I don’t want to give anything away here but the ending made perfect sense to me and it finishes at exactly the same point that I would have cut to the first credit. Perfect ending, which I obviously won't reveal here, with just the right amount of supernatural wonder combined with the celebration of falling from grace that I would have wanted from a story set up like this. No complaints from me here but plenty, as I already said, from the audience.
So there you have it. The VVitch is a pretty nice little genre piece which deserves to find its audience... an audience who obviously weren’t in attedance at the 9pm screening on the first Friday at the Enfield Cineworld. I can only assume these strange souls were unprepared for the atmosphere of intensity throughout the movie and reacted to it by ridiculing it out of their own lack of understanding of the kind of material that is rarely examined in the way that this movie does it. If you’re expecting a jump scare kind of movie then there are plenty of other, lesser horror films out there at the moment that can give you that... if you want something a little more sedately paced and honest in its intentions, however, then maybe you should go check out the Va Va Voom of the Va Va VVitch. I'm glad I did.