Finding light in our darkness: A critical analysis of “The Witch” (2016)

Writer-director Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” (or maybe “The VVitch,” and presumably read with an Eastern-European accent) is subtitled “A New-England Folktale.” As has been pointed out by people far more qualified than me, it’s not a folktale at all. No, “The Witch” is a movie, which may seem obvious, but it bears repeating. Because movies are primarily a visual art form, and “The Witch” is a movie about seeing, or rather, it is a movie about perception.

Which is not to say that “The Witch” is interested in telling us things happened one way, then pulling a “Fight Club” on us. Not at all. The film is quite comfortable in its Puritan context. So while its seemingly ambiguous symbology is equally comfortable being interpreted from a modern standpoint–hence feminist readings of the film, Freudian and/or Jungian readings, religious readings, et al, et al–we need to remember that the symbols are quite real for the characters on screen. Regardless of how you interpret it, one thing is clear: When it comes to “The Witch,” what you see is what you get. The question is simply what you see.

The initial issue that sets the movie into motion is a difference of perception–a difference in interpretation, specifically of the Christian bible. William (Ralph Ineson) and his family leave the plantation–the New World settlement, in modern parlance–over a difference in interpretation of “Christ’s true gospel.” They leave in one of the film’s most interesting sequences: from the point of view of the family’s wagon, the camera’s eye tracks backwards, the citizens of the plantation staring back at it, until the doors quietly close on the camera. One world has been removed from our vision, and we will never see it again. Outside, on the edge of the woods, the exiled family gazes reverently into a patch of blue sky. Likewise, it is the only blue sky we will ever see in the film. The rest of the film will be framed with gray skies and dark woods.

Light and darkness become quickly important in any film about perception, and “The Witch” is no different. Of course, it’s a no brainer to shoot a horror film in the dark, but “The Witch” has obviously taken this tactic to another level (as if it would bother with anything that fits a conventional horror film). The film almost exclusively uses period candles to light its shots (the cinematography was by Jarin Blaschke), adding an air of authenticity while forcing us to experience the world of “The Witch” through the same perspective as the settlers onscreen. At least until we leave the darkness of the theater and begin to see the film with new, modern eyes.

What we see and what we fail to see continue to be important throughout the film. The baby Samuel is lost in an act of seeing and not seeing–a game of peekaboo that goes horribly south when Thomasin (Ana Taylor-Joy) is not looking. Later, when William witnesses the death of his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and accuses Thomasin of witchcraft, he uses visuals as his proof. “What did I but see in my house?” he demands.

Thomasin counters, laying blame on the twins. When William confronts them, and realizes they are not as catatonic as they appear, Thomasin hisses, “Do you see now?”

But visuals are only as important as what you can actually perceive–like the baby that goes missing when our eyes are covered. After the film’s climax, when Thomasin meets the human form of Black Phillip, we see him only in suggestion; his face is entirely cut off by the camera, and his costume, hinting at wealth and nobility, melts into the blackness of the room.

The witch herself is a visual creature, appearing as extremes: a hoary hag in some scenes, a comely maiden, all full lips and long legs, in others. It is interesting to note that the latter form appears to a boy on the brink of adolescence, suggesting the witch knows something about the way we perceive, or would like to perceive, the world. Later in the film, an entity that appears as a hungry raven to the audience appears as a needy baby to a grieving mother. Much like our interpretations of the film, “The Witch” lets us to see what we want to see–or what we think we want to see–and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

Although the film toys with the way we perceive, it is ultimately a Puritan tale of absolutes. “It is God alone, not man, who knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not,” William tells his son on their foray into the woods. It is reality alone that knows what is reality and what it is not. From our limited perspective, true horror begins when what we perceive to be true breaks down, when the limited lights by which we think we see our reality are snuffed out, and all that remains for us is darkness.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it: A critical review of “A Field in England” (2013)

In case you haven’t noticed, I like weird movies. So when I first heard about writer-director Ben Wheatley’s “A Field In England,” a movie that practically got through college based on its weirdness, I knew I had to see it. Certainly I was hooked by its bizarre premise. At least, I had never heard of a psychedelic war film that took place in 17th century Surrey, let alone one that was supposed to be quite pretty. How could I not like this film? Well, as it turned out…yeah, I liked it.

First things first. “A Field in England” is quite pretty. Shooting in black-and-white is a surefire way for a low budget film to look arty and atmospheric, but Wheatley has a flair for visuals that would have carried the movie well beyond the realm of conventional thriller anyway. In fact, given the film’s loose grasp on reality, there are lengthy periods where visuals are all you have to hold onto: Characters approach in slow motion, framed in a wide shot; the camera pauses to view the titular field through the lens of a spider web dripping with dew; the actors even freeze from time to time, like stationary figures in a Renaissance painting. If nothing else, this is the prettiest movie you will ever watch that features a man struggling to defecate in a field.

The plot? Well, “Field” is a historical epic in the same way that “Psycho” is a primer on responsible hotel management. “Field” is about alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), who is joined by a lot of deserting soldiers on a quest to capture the rogue alchemist O’Neil (a viscerally menacing Michael Smiley). When they encounter O’Neil in the titular field, he mesmerizes them into helping him hunt for a treasure, and things go from bad to out there.

It’s nice how well characterized the characters are. The soldiers feel distinct from each other, and their motivations are clearly outlined, and present both material (treasure) and psychic (knowledge, duty, friendship) desires. It helps that the cast is so small, but it doesn’t hurt that the ensemble is a talented lot (mostly veterans of the BBC).

The events take place during the English Civil War, and it feels right; the costumes and dialogue are all perfectly 17th century–the soundtrack in particular, by Wheatley alum Jim Williams, sticks to pleasantly Renaissance faire arrangements. But the film is (perhaps refreshingly) not interested in saying something “smart” about its era–there is no laughter cast back from an unforgiving future on the players and events.

“Field” is in part classified as a horror movie because it is so odd that no one knew how else to classify it–and Wheatley is a “horror” director, right?–but it’s also a horror movie because it’s about what happens when our notions of reality break down. It would be easy to do a horrors of war/horrors of man kinda deal, but Wheatley has something far more cosmic in mind. And that’s where the drugs come in.

So how psychedelic is “Field”? Well, my father, a survivor of Haight-Ashbury hippie-dom, scoffed at the film for being black-and-white. No seriously psychedelic film, he said, could do without a cornucopia of color. Maybe, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being pretty damn trippy, although this is an acid fantasy by way of Arthur Machen. At one point, Whitehead vomits a small collection of casting runes. “I have no recollection of consuming anything of the remotest sort,” he says of the mystical stones, with all the surprised sincerity of a frat boy realizing he’s just set his beer on the table sideways. And the film does deliver on that strobe light warning, albeit only during the last 10 minutes or so.

Perhaps “Field” is exploring the loss of faith that occurred during the learning process of the Enlightenment. Whitehead certainly has a lot to lose: his faith in his God, his faith in his master, his faith in the royal political system that is crashing down around the respective country’s head.

But on the flip side, when events are this bizarre, when notions of memory, identity and reality are thrown out the window, you almost have to blatantly accept the supernatural because, seriously, what the hell else is there at that point? Despite the political and psychological upheaval around them, the characters remain quite receptive to their situation. “It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman,” one soldier notes when first meeting O’Neil. “Though perhaps a little taller,” he adds. I suppose you could blame it on the mushrooms, but even psychedelics have their limits. You can either decide that the camera itself has become an unreliable narrator, or you can just accept the unacceptable. And isn’t that kind of paradox what consciousness expansion is all about?

Unspeakable spread: A roundup of Lovecraft themed virtual card games

Even as we digitize, there has been a boom in card and board games. Perhaps as things become more virtual, we are desperate to grasp something tangible–I have suggested this explains the pocket popularity of steampunk. Regardless, one cannot stop the digital onslaught, so in a twisted turnabout-is-fair-game sort of move, it is possible to find various card games in a virtual form. Which is fine by me, in a way. Look, I’m all about the tangibles sometimes, but my least favorite part of card games is other people. Electronic card games remove that nasty component, with other players faceless and miles away. And it doesn’t hurt that there are a few that are sort of free. Given my interests, it was only a matter of time before I found a couple that utilized the Cthulhu mythos. As it turns out, there are enough to justify a review.

The only completely free game on this list is “Necronomicon,” a browser-based game. Coupled with its lack of price, the game is quick enough to figure out, and it doesn’t get anywhere near tricky until the very end, so this is probably the place for people more interested in mythos than cards to dive in. Which isn’t to say that it’s the best; game-wise, “quick to figure out” translates to “lack of depth,” and the artwork ranges from kind of interesting to kind of silly. Curiously enough, there was once an earlier version of the game that had more serious looking artwork, but it’s largely disappeared from the Internet due to some copyright issue. Weird.

The game draws upon a pretty subtle selection of Mythos works for its cards, and there is a strong 1920s gangster thing going, so you’ll see plenty of Tommy guns and the like. More cards are added in the quasi-sequel, “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names.” In the game’s first form, cards were either single-use events or creatures; here, items, characters and locations have been added. Which does give the game legs while keeping it fairly simple. This is the kind of thing you can have on in the background at work.

If you’re after something a little more booster pack flavored, try Wizards of the Coast alum Darwin Kastle’s “Cthulhu Realms,” which is apparently a digital version of a physical card game…unless it’s a digital card game with a physical spin off. This kind of thing gets pretty swampy these days. The game’s main strength is its sense of humor. Mythos fans who can take a joke will be instantly entertained by the creepy-yet-cartoony artwork, which leans on an interesting buffet of Mythos tales. Readers will also recognize obscurer references to stories like “The House in the High Mist” and characters like Keziah Mason.

I downloaded a free version of the game on a tablet, which included the first half of the easy difficulty of campaign mode, as well as a tutorial and card gallery. Again, humor is the strongest thing here: The campaign’s story follows an IRS officer (and, yes, the IRS was newly minted in the 1920s, so points for historical accuracy) who becomes entangled in a war between Deep Ones and inmates at Arkham Asylum–his own sanity being guarded because his brain was trained to manage the maddening tax codes of the United States government.

I shelled out five bucks for the complete version of the game and was soon disappointed. The second half of the campaign was nowhere near as funny, and, for my fingers at least, the learning curve of the unlocked hard difficulty far too steep; I couldn’t tell if I was winning from skill or blind luck (hopefully both, but probably the latter). If you’re into stats, stats and more stats, maybe you’ll appreciate the brutal pace; for the more casual, comical or Cthulhu-esque card player, you’ll probably be fine with the free version.

Possibly the deepest of the bunch is French developer and digital big-man-on-campus Byook’s “The Moaning Words.” Sure, the name is terrible, but they’re French. You try creating a horror game in a foreign tongue and see how far you get. The gameplay itself is simple, a bit like tic-tac-toe with shoggoths, but this is the only game I’m reviewing here that lets you build your own deck, so there is a soft strategy to it.

Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, “Words” has a secret weapon: Alan Dean Foster. Foster is the king of movie novelizations, the most literate pulp writer since Richard Matheson. If you don’t believe me, go read his adaptations of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” And his adaptations of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies? Well…we all make bad choices from time to time.

Anyway, sticking Foster on the script not only gives this game serious cosmic horror cred, it means that the campaign mode is pretty well done. Which is great for someone like me who plays games for a well crafted story. I don’t know if Foster also wrote the biographies of the cards in the card gallery, whoever did deserves some praise as well. Some cards are given a special section of background notes, which always features a quote by a relevant author (obviously, it’s usually Lovecraft), which adds to the depth. And it also doesn’t hurt that the art on the cards is pretty nicely done (I also played this game on a tablet).

This game is freemium: You can advance basically for free by waiting around for various features, like chapters in the campaign, items in the store and different modes of play, to be unlocked by time or chance, or you can make in app purchases. Your call, but remember–the gameplay isn’t deep, so you will probably want those features unlocked sooner or later to keep things interesting.

Interestingly enough, Cthulhu is far less present than you would think in these games. Only “Words” has a playable Cthulhu card; “Cthlhu Realms” just showcases his shadow, and “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names” relegates him to an environmental element. He’s not even in the first “Necronomicon.” Seems like this Great Old One needs a better agent.