The Witch

Having engineered a power outage that stirs a neighborhood to violence, two aliens reflect on the human predisposition to paranoia and panic:  “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find… and it’s themselves.  And all we need do is sit back and watch.  And we’ll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves.”  So ends one of the better-known episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

The plot and themes of Robert Eggers’ 2015 slow-burn horror film, The Witch, are similar.  A baby goes missing from a 17th-century New England farm.  “Surely the work of wolves or witches,” reasons a family of disgraced Calvinist zealots.  Fear (of eternal hellfire), desperation (in the face of meager harvest), and anxiety (because, apparently, teenage girls are always spooky), fuel a rising tide of finger-pointing panic.

The Witch is focused on the experience of a single family, so it doesn’t feel quite like the social folk horror of The Wicker Man or Midsommar.  Yet it shares the subgenre’s love of (supposedly) natural lighting (surely upon scrutiny, no one is duped by the “moon” on the barn roof in the photo above).  Bad things happen to (and are done by) people who read by lantern, who love by starlight, who dance in the glow of bonfires.

The Witch‘s Jarin Blaschke joins a group of cinematographers recently channeling John Alcott’s Barry Lyndon.  The Oscar-winning Alcott lit most of Kubrick’s 1975 period drama with candles and sunbeams – the prevalent light sources of the 1750s.  It seems miraculous in retrospect that he was shooting on Eastman’s 5254 color negative stock.  By comparison Blaschke, Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), and Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant) have it easy with the Arri Alexa – more light sensitive by far, no matter their respective lens choices.  Blaschke’s conjuring a Puritan gloom from tarnished skies.  He keeps flame from ever looking warm and welcoming.

Alas, we seem now to be telling more stories of collective self-destruction (see Eggers and Blaschke’s The Lighthouse, cut from the same visual and narrative cloth).  Victims of systemic racism, global warming, pervasive sickness, financial dread – we all are residents of Maple Street.  Viral videos reveal the witch in every family, every classroom, certainly every Wal-Mart.  Apparently, “our long national nightmare” requires Blaschke’s cold light of doom.

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