Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The Goat of Menses and the Fox in the Atheist-Hole: THE WITCH


Enshrouded in portentous gloom and droning cello, THE WITCH (2015) is the first great woodsy pre-Salem devil film in 300 years, a SHINING for the ANTICHRIST x BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW subdivision of the HAXAN community (with a dash of the recent HONEYMOON if you're keeping track). Set in 1630s New England on a small patch of farm and field, surrounded by deep (if leafless) woods, it's a character piece that delves into the same dark patch of the soul that many witch and devil movies make feints at but then run away from, i.e. the actual dark superstitions  of the time, recorded in woodcuts and old typeface by jimson weed-addled mystics. First time-writer/director Robert Eggers has a unique flair for the period and a trust that the authentic super low lighting--candles and hearth fires casting sinister shadows on the rough wood log walls; thin grey light at early evening's onset, filtered through the opaque spidery branches of the barren woods--won't be dismissed as 'murky' in years to come (as it would were it to be transferred to VHS). And by being straightforward with both the paranoia and the reality of witchcraft, Eggers' film functions on both conscious and unconscious levels. The result, a vivid circumnavigation of a phenomena that's both real and imagined, an expression of both repressed female psychic energy under the pressure cooker of dogmatic patriarchy and a validation of that patriarchy's overwrought fears and draconian responses.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin (above, amidst deepdreamgenerator pareidolia), a naif to the menstrual age, who prays valiantly for deliverance from sinful thoughts but nonetheless falls prey to shady woodsy pagan strangeness, especially once her baby sibling disappears literally out from under her nose. Kate Dickie, brilliantly unhinged, is the salt of the earth mom slowly dissolving into the dirt from the loss; the loving yet ineffectual dad (the nicely deep-voiced Ralph Ineson) can do nothing but shy away from all blame; young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) can't help but lust for his developing sister as there are no other options, at least at first. Running rings around them all are moppet evil twins and a strapping horny goat named Black Phillip, possibly the embodiment of Goat of Mendes i.e. Baphomet or maybe just a buck in heat or in the early stages of rabies. Somehow that crazy goat steals the show and miraculously never seems CGI fake or badly cut-in to appear to not be doing naturally the eerie stuff he's up to. There's also a rabbit and a raven, filmed in such a thin grey outdoor light the full uncanny ambiguity of their black eye stares becomes something far more sinister and eerie than it would if it morphed into some devilish visage. If ever thou were a young tyke wandering alone by the creek at a big family picnic, only to find your solitary contemplation suddenly broken by an angry, honking territorial goose (looming at a giant Harryhausen-size compared to your five year-old frame), your parents only laughing in the picnic distance while you screamed in mortal terror, then you'll shiver with delayed recognition.  

Or what about the time you were scared by the eye of a motionless rabbit in a field, it just sitting there in the tall grass--staring at you out of the corner of its all seeing ambivalent monster eye-- all the more uncanny as the reflection (in its stillness) of our own hiding under our sheets while ghosts sniff around our bed in the dead of night, then this WITCH shall resonate (as it did with me).

Above and beyond the film's naturalistic approach to horror lurks some obvious Kubrick aspirations, vis-a-vis a steady relentless Steadicam forward glide through the forest, ever vacillating between sane rational perceptions (when you know what you see is real), hallucination (when you know it's not), and madness (when you don't know the difference). It's in this beyond either/or interpretive cabin fever meltdown that THE WITCH finds its crux. Rather than go the 'lascivious magistrate condemning innocent hotties to the pyre' route of so many Salem-based films, or the 'witch vowing revenge from the stake on her tormentor's descendants' route (or both), Eggers take the New England road less traveled. Traveled almost never, in fact, because it's too direct. It occurs to almost no previous American filmmaker to just take the period's spooky folktale mythos at face value. That's why, perhaps, it feels so fresh covering familiar ground. That it's set in a time before rational objectivity (the sort of thinking America was created to help foster) helps explains its power, because it sticks to that era's ideas of the natural world with admirable focus. There won't be an electric light for centuries to come, and--like a scared kid longing for a nightlight to guide his way to the midnight bathroom-- you desperately pray for illumination. If stared into long enough, darkness can't help always takes human or animal shape, starts to move, takes on three dimensions. If you've ever seen things move in the distance when it's getting dark and the inanimate objects in the distance do actually look like they're moving, and even knowing consciously they aren't doesn't stop you from seeing them move, you'll be like damn - so that's paredoliaTHE WITCH gets paredolia right. Only in one or two other films have we seen beautiful women materialize out of the darkness of the woods or the gleam of the bathtub, as irresistible as a warm slug of whiskey in an unfriendly wilderness. Our willpower long gone, we lower our lips towards their hearth and then suddenly these figures grab onto us as if with clawed tentacles and thorny paws. They are not hot and young at all, but decomposing and very old! The ringing chimes of that first kiss quickly turn from wedding bells to funeral chimes and fades into a single Donald Sutherland death rattle.


This powerful motif, the 'young-old, soul-catching woman' reflects the imagery found in the sidpa bardo (vis-a-vis the Tibetan Book of the Dead), the level of purgatory where you see only undulating lovers burning like flames in an otherwise all-consuming darkness. If you let yourself be drawn too close to their warmth you run the risk of finding yourself stuck like a fly in the frozen web of the woman's newly-fertilized embryo. But sometimes the lovers flames are just a fishing lure, hooking unwary souls so they can be hauled into hell's trawler, so they can be shred into a million digestible pieces, demon engines eating all the impurities away and reducing you to raw unmediated consciousness. The 'you' you believed yourself to be is shaved away like long hippie hair under the electric razor of a FULL METAL JACKET barber. All that's left is unpartitioned hard drive consciousness, all ready to be filled with more illusions and time-space impressions. The 'you' as you know it is gone forever, only the 'I AM' remains, and even that isn't yours anymore. 

On the other hand, how 'new' are the files uploaded onto your hard drive going to be, really?


But the big question is: THE WITCH, is it really scary? No. But I'm glad you asked. And I am glad the Satanists like it (1). The Satanists need a LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST to call their own.  If you came to the cinema thinking THE WITCH was just going to be another low budget horror movie, maybe you'd be floored by its clarity of focus and freedom from all the tired tropes. Maybe that would be enough. Sometimes a movie just has to be better at what it's trying to do than 95% of all the other movies trying to do the same thing. Sure, THE WITCH is not a masterpiece I'll want to visit again and again, but it's good enough that once I got home I had to unearth my DVDs of THE DEVIL'S RAIN, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, CITY OF  THE DEAD, and RACE WITH THE DEVIL, to see where it ranked. Those films may not be classics, but they are entertaining and, sometimes, even mildly scary. THE WITCH tries harder to say deep things than those films. Part of its effectiveness comes maybe from its set and setting: North America is where the devil never left. The deep woodsy tribes, the wild-harvest entheogens, the evil spirits called into existence by long dead tribal shamans to wreak vengeance on the long dead white man and his descendents, the 70s Hasbro Ouija board-summoned demons still loafing around dusty basement air hockey tables and candle-wax covered wooden planks, never sent back by the kids too freaked out at their floating planchette to say goodbye; the demons speaking backwards through heavy metal music lyrics to impressionable teens who huff glue when mom's at work. It's all connected.

We here in the States know what it is to be frothing at the mouth and running naked in the woods after one toke of jimson weed or a PCP-laced cigarette. We know too--even if only from waaay back in the 15th century--what it is to be hungry and afraid and lost in woods so dark and weird they've yet even to be on any map -- all those things helping the unconscious shucker loose from its floorboards and enhance perception of moving shadows. We know what it is to see things we have no name for, and so have to name them ourselves, even if we were 60% sure what we saw was just a shadow twisted into life by fear and hunger. That's why calling yourself a starving artist is redundant. As the brain gradually runs out of fuel it short circuits the electric fence circling our inner infernal pit. Insane on hunger and psychoactive side effects from when--in starving desperation--we ate whatever leaves or roots we found within reach of our trembling, emaciated pilgrim claws, ask any ghost show on TV and they'll tell you... right after the break. 

I well know too well that condition, and also the profound sense of deliverance prayer offers to the terrified woods-dweller. When I was 14, I spent a summer at a Presbyterian summer camp in the woods of Maryland, and all it took was some hogan-mate's mention of local devil creature 'the Goatman' crunching around in the leaves outside our campsite the night before and the Goatman became our collective obsession for the entire rest of my stay there. The crunching leaves at night news spread from fire to fire until the whole camp was infected with Goat Man fever and the counsellors thought we were all crazy. Our terror-fueled whistling in the dark at night led to sleepless prayers, first light of dawn gratitude, afternoon boasting how we weren't scared (though we were). The arts and crafts room became host to a dozen goat man shrines with a hundred depictions in sketch, marker and clay. We all slept with our bibles clutched tight in our sleeping bags. By day we all laughed, but late at night, after the fire had gone out we weren't laughing or even mentioning the Goatman in anything but a terse whisper. 

Then, after all that helpless anxiety, we prayed and sang around the campfire, the "One Tin Soldier" / Godspell repertoire in unison: grateful transcendent tears streamed down our faces.

We were delivered.


Neither the religion nor terror lasted beyond the end of our two-week stay (needless to say, there were no actual Goatman murders, tracks, or even glimpses), but I thought of those Maryland woods after seeing BLAIR WITCH and again after mulling over THE WITCH. There's other weird things that movie seems to have dredged up in me, also: the mom, played by Kate Dickie, looks an awful lot like my own mom (Nancy), who died last February. Incidentally, mom used to volunteer at the local 4H goat farm. Shortly after she died they named a newborn goat 'Nancy' in her honor There's a goat in THE WITCH, too. That's three distinct goat references connecting me, mom and America. 

Furthermore, as the onscreen mom went crazier and crazier onscreen I kept marveling at the similarity with my own mom, a victim of the destructive dogma of her own cult religion, Christian Science. If she'd gone to a NYC doctor she'd still be alive today, via the miracle of digitalis, which is derived from foxglove, and there's no atheist in a foxhole, which is why God made war and why the fox in ANTICHRIST says "chaos reigns" because a fox in an atheist hole is just another word for the devil. Maybe. 

My mom's religion denies the effectiveness of medicine, but for me, well, I take so much medicine I'm back around behind what I was afraid of confronting. It's not normal, but what is? I am called to the poison path by some witchy gene deep inside me (I'm a descendent of Mary Eastey on my father's side). Antithetical to Christian Science, I believe god dwells in medicinal herbs and tonics. With the right forest flower, fungus and/or toad enzyme, a seeker like me can seek council from powerful inner guides and fly around the ceiling over my prostrate body. I've done it enough to know it can be done. Since I leave my body behind during these travels there's no way to scientifically prove I went anywhere real. I'm still flying like a witch on a broom but science considers me merely hallucinating, dreaming or delusional now, They're right of course, but the human perception of matter as a solid is itself an illusion, and they'll espouse that, too, if cornered. Still, tis better to be dismissed as a stoner than stoned by a pilgrim mob.

Science can't handle when evidence is purely subjective, thank god, I guess, but THE WITCH makes clear why this rigidity of thought is so necessary to science's survival. When subjective description reigns over empirical evidence, western thought breaks down and shows its armor chinks and suddenly the devil is right there, bashing on the weakest point trying to get out. Lick the right toad, smoke the right flower, chant the right chant for long enough, drink a tea from the right root, eat the right mushroom, or do some combo of them, all in the right measure and at the right moment in your life, in the right company (or alone) --and thou will see far beyond the narrow sliver of the spectrum your senses normally access. You can travel beyond time and space. But if you do, you find you're like a five year-old wandering down by the creek unchaperoned at a family picnic; the devil goose awaits your visit. Lord knows what he wants to do to you while he has your attention.

Science can only watch on the dock and say, "that's nice, Erich, but it proves nothing." Habeus Corpus. If you want mom to watch you dive, you have to bring your body to the board.

On the other hand, eat the wrong mushroom or root (or even too much of the right one) and you're dead, which is also a way of moving beyond time and space, but then you'll never even know for sure you went anywhere as you'll have no place to come back to. So, if you're ever empirically dead or just astral traveling, remember this: the devil only notices you if your soul's pure, white and shiny. A little dirt-stain sin is the best camouflage, mom, so don't bleat a word to me about my both-ends candle-burning, especially considering your own painfully unmedicated and preventable death. Dying to the sound of prayer is one thing, but refusing yourself the solace of a hospice-strength morphine-benzo cocktail to ease the transition? In my religion, that's heresy. ++
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NOTES:
1. I should preface by saying there is no such thing as an 'official' church of Satan; it's not organized the way, say Catholicism is. Anton LaVey was a genius self-promoter who saw a void and filled it with the C. of S. but he was just a (self-professed, which is why I like him) carny charlatan with a love of whiskey, circus memorabilia  and mannequins. As Aliestar Crowley himself said:
The Devil does not exist. It is a false name invented by the Black Brothers to imply a Unity in their ignorant muddle of dispersions. A devil who had unity would be a God … ‘The Devil’ is, historically, the God of any people that one personally dislikes …
 But devil worship needed a face, for the media to personally dislike; LaVey knew cannily filled it. 

2. By the same token, fans of HP Lovecraft roll our many eyes when someone mentions seeing a copy of the real Necronomicon, for there is no such book --or wasn't when Lovecraft first mentioned it within his 30s pulp stories (and his fellow Weird Tales writers borrowed it with his blessing for their own stories). BUT weirder things have happened, like the Nazi-run Thule Society believing Bulwer-Lytton's Vrill: The Coming Race or Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard.

Tammy Grimes (Horror at 37,000 Feet) 
LINKUS DIABOLI 

Acid's Greatest Horror #1: ANTICHRIST 

Katherine Ross - The Legacy
Give me My Skin! BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and the Devil Films of the 70s (David Del Valle)

1 comment:

  1. I had a pet goat when i was in high school. I used to ride around with him in the passenger seat of my 66 Comet four door. His name was Nad. I liked him precisely because he made people uncomfortable. He wasn't like a dog or a real pet; he couldn't care less if I lived or died. He was just a weanling kid when I got him. At about six months, he started trying to have his way with my six year old half sister, chasing her around and tackling her, then "peeing" on her. My father got rid of the goat then, and I am sure he made for tough bbq or chili somewhere over the tracks. Have you gone to visit your mother's namesake yet? I liked this movie. Wasn't crazy about it, but all the pieces looked great, and I keep thinking about it, days later. Those twins, ugh, straight out of The Brood. The boy's deathbed ecstasy took my breath away. All of the actors looked like they actually lived there. It was so claustrophobic that I felt like I was in their tableau. Good Randy Newman use above.

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