Too much to see: A critical review of “Witness” (1985)

It’s all about driving those numbers toward the blog, right? And you utilize SEOs and buzzwords and hot and topical topics. So I thought, why not write something about an eclipse? It seems like there have to have been a few eclipses in the history of fiction. Well, it turns out there’s an entire page on Wikipedia devoted to just that topic  (of course). So I ordered a few movies from the library and figured I’d review whatever came first. What came first was “Witness,” Peter Weir’s Amish country flavored thriller. Unless it’s a drama. Unless it’s a…well, we’ll get to that.

Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) has just become an Amish widow. On a trip to Philadelphia, her son, Samuel (Lukas Haas) sees a man being murdered in a train station bathroom. Samuel, the only witness of the crime, is interviewed by John Book (Harrison Ford), the police officer assigned to the case. Based on Samuel’s testimony, Book realizes that the murder was conducted by corrupt cops, and that he becomes their next target. Under attack, Book escorts the Lapps back to their Amish village before collapsing from a bullet wound.

The Lapps offer to house Book, disguised as a member of their community, while he figures out how to deal with the situation. Book, now in Amish garb, must learn to adjust as an outsider. He participates in a barn raising, grows closer emotionally to Rachel and explores his own violent nature.

The best element of “Witness” is, without a doubt, Weir’s delightful eye. There is an abundance of close-up shots: tight shots of faces, tight shots of hands, tight shots of wounds. Even shots that should be medium shots are interrupted by elements in the extreme foreground–a waterwheel, a glass of lemonade–forcing them into becoming tight shots. Accordingly, true wide shots, displaying the placid beauty of Pennsylvania farm country–Ford’s car wreck, the barn raising–feel like breaths of fresh air. This penchant for tight shots, combined with occasional use of low angles, gives the film a child’s-eye perspective in its more tender spots and a sense of urgency in its more tense moments.

So if the direction is the best, the worst thing about “Witness” is the tone, which has all the calm and sense of direction of a drunk jackrabbit. “Witness” is not based on a book, which is too bad, because that would explain why the movie lurches back and forth between so many genres. The film opens almost like an ominous period drama (oddly similar to Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs”) before switching to a white knuckle thriller–we move from Samuel observing a funeral to Samuel observing a train station to Samuel observing a murder. This is the best sequence.

However, as soon as Book is in the Amish village, it turns into a comic fish-out-of-water story, occasionally veering into erotica, and all the while a coming-of-age story for both Sam and Book, before finally crashing back into thriller at the end. Perhaps screenwriters William Kelley and Earl Wallace felt they needed all these genres to explore the film’s dichotomies–violence and pacifism, urban and traditional, romantic and traditional–but they didn’t. The violence is made all the more graphic since it bookends the tender humor and tasteful nudity in the middle and, for me at least, presents what the film could have been had it been a few minutes shorter and a bit tighter in focus. Oh well.

The acting is all fine, although nothing particularly stands out. Ford is fine as Book, but I think he was better playing that guy from “Blade Runner.” Everyone else is fine too, but they’re just fine. The soundtrack stands out, only not in a particularly good way. Maurice Jarre’s score is heavily reliant on synthesizers, which makes sense given it was 1985, but it doesn’t fit the film and probably wouldn’t work with a full orchestra anyway.

Oh, and, the eclipse connection? A solar eclipse prompted Weir to shoot some impromptu footage of folks in Amish costume observing the phenomena. However, something got scrambled in the editing room, and the footage was left out of the film. The only source of this info that I could find was that Wikipedia page. Hmm.


The undead have daddy issues: A critical review of “Maggie” (2015)

So apparently I do not like zombie movies. I was reminded of this the other day when a friend of mine and I were talking about horror films, and he was about to mention something when he hesitated, then told me what I did and didn’t like. This is, of course, a flagrant lie. I don’t not like zombie movies. I just…haven’t liked one very much since 1943’s “I Walked With a Zombie.” All right, so I don’t like zombie movies. But I’m not a hater. I’m just wildly picky.

Case in point, I recently watched “Maggie,” the directorial debut of title designer Henry Hobson. And I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it much either, but I gave it a shot in spite of my lack of feeling for zombie flicks. In fact, I might have watched it because of my lack of feeling, since “Maggie” was supposed to be quite different from your run of the mill Romero rip off. And it was. “Maggie” was an effort to humanize what is, by its nature, an inhuman genre, an effort at showing us what a zombie apocalypse might look like not in real time but in ordinary people’s time (the script, by John Scott 3, is another freshman effort). “Maggie” is to the zombie genre what John Cassavetes’s “Faces” was to independent cinema. So how does that probably inappropriate comparison work out?

“Maggie” is about Maggie (Abigail Breslin), a typical American teenage girl except that she occasionally feels the need to go into the woods and eat live prey. Actually, in this not too distant future, she’s not that unusual. A virus has spread across the country and people have had to learn to cope with it. While in other films that would mean a lot shotgun blasts to the sternum and skull gnawing, here it means more heavy sighing and inevitability. When Maggie’s father (Arnold Schwarzenegger) snaps a zombie’s neck in the first five minutes of the film, that’s not a vision of things to come. Pay less attention to the sound effects and more to the stern look of disappointment with the way things have turned out on Schwarzenegger’s face.

Still, the film almost works. The cast works. Schwarzenegger is no stranger to thoughtful thriller. Remember “Total Recall”? The original, obviously. His co-stars seem to be pulled from the more interesting side of horror TV–Breslin was on “Scream Queens,” and Joely Richardson (playing Maggie’s icy stepmother) was on “Wayward Pines.”

The film pulls off its goal visually as well, although it does vary a bit between shots (Lukas Ettlin was the cinematographer). Some of the prettiest photography is of the burning fields of farmland, the sky all apocalyptic gold to gray. But a little while later, close ups and blurry slow motion at an over-night teenage get together give us the awkward sensation of home movies. But perhaps that was the point.

There is a curious mixture of hominess and horror in the film. A knife that Richardson is using to chop tomatoes is used a few minutes later to chop off necrotic fingers. The house itself takes on the weird sensation of existing halfway between a home and a mortuary, much like it titular inhabitant. It’s an interesting concept, and one it’s that’s not often mined in zombie cinema.

Some of the best tension in the film doesn’t come from watching a monstrous Maggie vanish suddenly on a backyard swing; instead, it happens while her father is making her laugh at the dinner table. In a family drama, it would be pleasant filler; in “Maggie,” it’s a failed attempt at respite since, despite her giggling, we can see the lines of infection drawn around her face. Like father like daughter, perhaps. Lines of shadow from boarded up windows cross Schwarzenegger as he moves around their house. The visual is repeated later, this time with the shadows cast from drawn blinds on Breslin in a doctor’s office, strengthening the bond between the pair.

The question of the nature of the virus is examined throughout “Maggie,” but not as it normally is in these films. Instead of a scientific approach, the film takes a humanistic one. It’s less interested in how a theoretical zombie virus might work and more interested in the philosophical question of what happens to the infected, as well as how people respond to them. Early in the film, we pass some post-apocalyptic graffiti. “We are human,” reads one piece; right next to it, another asks “Are we human?”

Later, one of the family’s neighbors, who also had an infected child, talks to Schwarzenegger about the fine line between human and monster. “‘Avoid touching subject without gloves,'” she says, cynically repeating instructions given by a doctor about how to care for her child. “Never once said her name. ‘Julia.'”

A less sympathetic approach comes from Richardson. “I’ve loved her like she was my own,” she tells Schwarzenegger, “but she’s not her anymore.” The notion of zombie as illness is hardly new, but it takes on a particularly melancholy air here, recalling Scottish psychiatrist James Brown’s book “Freud and the Post Freudians.” In it, Brown suggested that the difference between psychological and physiological illness is that a psychological illness is one in which the person doesn’t seem like the same person anymore.

OK, we’ve covered a lot of highfalutin’ ground for an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie flick, but it’s more appropriate than you might think. Because, while “Maggie” is not an entertaining film, it is an interesting film. And sometimes, an interesting film is better than an entertaining one. Certainly within the confines of both the zombie genre and Schwarzenegger’s career, the film is impressive, even if it fails to make an impression.

Of monsters and monasteries: A critical review of “Nightbreed” (1990)

Writer-director Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed” (adapted from his own novel “Cabal”) is the kind of movie that could only have come out at the end of the 1980s. A few years earlier, and it would have lacked the kind of overblown pathos it exhibits; a few years later, and it never would have been financed. Indeed, the movie was fraught with creative control issues, particularly commercial ones, and it has gone on to rival “Blade Runner” in terms of different prints available. Still, whichever version you find yourself watching, you will be viewing a flawed, albeit interesting and intelligent, piece of horror cinema.

Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer, who ends up in “Hellraiser: Inferno”) thinks he’s better now. His nightmares of an otherworldly city called Midian are on the back burner thanks to some pills he’s popping that have been prescribed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg, yes, that David Cronenberg, who ends up directing “Naked Lunch,” “eXistenz,” et al). Of course, he’s not better, because what kind of movie would that be? Instead, Boone has become fascinated with bizarre murders that he believes he’s been pulling off. Maybe he has. The cops think so, because they end up gunning him down outside of an abandoned cemetery just outside of town.

After Boone is killed, Lori Winston, his girlfriend (Anne Bonny, who ends up voicing Brigid Tenenbaum in the Bioshock series), steps in to investigate. She discovers that neither Aaron nor the cemetery are entirely what they appear to be; indeed, the cemetery houses a secret city of monsters who, after centuries of pressure from humans, have chosen to separate themselves from the rest of the world to live in strange peace and contemplation. Of course, the presence  of Winston shakes up the city of monsters, attracting unwanted attention and quickening their ultimate purpose.

I want to quickly mention the music, which is by the always solid Danny Elfman and is suitably big, brash, Gothic and fun. I actually didn’t know going into the movie that Elfman–one of my favorite film composers–wrote the score, and I liked it before I realized he was the man behind the baton. I always find it rewarding when something like that happens.

Also, the cast is familiar and oddly brilliant. Cronenberg is a great choice; as a kind of mad scientist, he’s a perfect mix between dispassionate and informative. Doug Bradley—you know him as Pinhead—is buried underneath makeup, but his presence is well felt.

So in case you couldn’t tell, what we have here is classic Barker. The direction is solid, the photography is clean and professional (the cinematography is by Robin Vidgeon, another Hellraiser series alum) and the costumes and creature effects could keep a monster fan happy for days. In fact, you could watch the entire film for that and be satisfied, but you’d be missing out on Barker’s intelligent, if scattered, script.

Barker is commenting on marginalized groups in this film–how society marginalizes people, how they form groups accordingly and react to marginalization–but he’s also creating a mythology. Created mythology courtesy of Barker tends to go one of two ways: it’s either elegant and compelling, as in the novella “The Hellbound Heart,” or it’s messy and confusing, hopefully as much to the author as to the audience, as in some other works I could mention. Although the mythology presented in “Nightbreed” seems like it ought to go south, it never does. Perhaps it helps that Barker seems to be taking cues from 19th century English artist and poet William Blake. Like Blake, Barker’s mythology here is not strictly dualistic but polyistic and cyclic.

Regarding religiosity, the film is not anti-faith or pro-faith per se. Again, like Blake, Barker seems to be suggesting that in order to understand our place in the cosmos, we need to toss off the shackles of organized religion’s more militant and senselessly ritualistic elements to get at the real heart of the matter. The seed of religion is more compelling than any kind of garden we can prune it into. This is relayed through the small but intriguing character of an alcoholic priest (Malcom Smith, who was not in any of the Hellraiser movies) who loses one faith only to pick up another, far older, one in the final act of the film.

Which is perhaps part of the problem with “Nightbreed.” Not its outlook, but its evolution. Barker is toying with these great themes, but he seems hesitant to discuss them; however, once they’re in the open, he shoves them forward in a rush. Coupled with some slightly flat characters, “Nightbreed” suffers from a case of style over substance perhaps…but I’ve always been a style man, and what a style it is.

Who’s hungry?: A critical review of “Ravenous” (1999)

Curiously, cannibals and Westerns seem to have an odd kinship; at least, the recent film “Bone Tomahawk” and the recent video game “Red Dead Redemption” both mined cannibalistic elements. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the Western ethos of obtainment and the cannibal ethos of consuming. Or maybe people just like eating people in cowboy hats. Regardless, both works have their precursor in “Ravenous,” director Antonia Bird’s intriguing mash-up of Western, horror and black comedy.

Guy Pearce stars as Captain Boyd, who becomes an accidental hero during the Mexican-American War. His superiors send him to California to recuperate in a fort operated by a skeleton crew of military misfits during the winter months. A mysterious stranger appears outside the fort, telling tales of cannibalism on the Oregon Trail–it turns out eating the recently dead perks you up when you’re feeling ill. The soldiers decide to investigate, and you can probably guess it doesn’t end too well.

Post-investigation, Boyd returns to the fort minus a commanding officer. The government responds by sending a new man to oversee the outpost, one who looks a little too familiar to Boyd. I’m not saying a lot here because there are a couple of pleasant twists (nothing that shocking though) that round out the film. Fans of folklore will also be pleased to hear the Wendigo name-dropped in an appropriately folksy setting, although perhaps a little confused by the geography of the film, since the Wendigo is really more of an east coast thing.

“Ravenous” does drag a little bit as it munches along, largely due to a final act in which two flesh and blood revitalized combatants duke it out for what seems like a few minutes longer than they should. I far preferred the film when it was subtly meting out tension–a scene in which the soldiers from the fort investigate a cave combines tight editing with a dramatic, off kilter soundtrack to great effect (the editing, by Neil Farrell, is superb, and the score, by minimalist Damon Albarn and Blur frontman Michael Nyman, has achieved a cult status that rivals the film).

Indeed, for the most part, “Ravenous” is as immaculate as a fresh palate. The cast seems up for the material, which might not be surprising considering they are veterans of quirky horror: David Arquette was a mainstay of the Scream franchise, Jeffrey Jones was the father in “Beetlejuice,” Pearce cut his teeth in the mind-bending thriller “Memento,” and Robert Carlyle was on a singularly stupid Scottish detective show called “Hamish Macbeth.” Well, all right, that last one is a bit outside the circle I was describing, but have you seen that show? It really wasn’t that good. (Curiously, both Jeremy Davies and Neal McDonough later appeared in the FX series “Justified.”)

The design on the film is triumphantly cold, and I mean that. Some movies just look cold. “The Thing,” for one, “Hateful Eight” perhaps. “Ravenous” joins those ranks, which perfectly puts you in the suddenly inadequate snow shoes of the men on screen.

The themes are subtly sketched out by writer Ted Griffin (and the plot is thankfully missing any romance). The film’s questions about courage, civilization and ultimately humanity are well worth pondering. And what might have been a clumsy, obvious questions in another movie is handled here with grace and deft. It’s almost impossible to escape an evaluation of “manifest destiny” in a Western, whether a film takes a romantic, individualist view or a grittier, more militant view of that subject. “Ravenous” quietly falls into the latter camp.

“Manifest destiny,” one character says, observing the chilly landscape surrounding the fort. “Come April, thousands of gold-hungry Americans will be over those mountains, on their way to new lives, passing right through here.” Of course, he’s talking more about the upcoming menu than the changing face of America. Still, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it denouement involving the stew pot at the end of the film suggests that cycle of hunger in America can never be broken. Like the dissonant two-note banjo riff that lurks under the more pastoral and mournful parts of the movie’s enigmatic opening theme, hunger is what is always lying in wait beneath the American dream. Bon appetite.

A peculiar mess: A critical review of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2016)

One always wonders what one’s heroes are up to, and I would be a liar if I did not admit that director Tim Burton is one of my heroes. In fact, and pardon the cliché, I imagine Burton is one of the forces that got me through high school. There was a point where his Batman movies where, in some way, related to at least two-thirds of my waking thoughts. Of course, Burton has always been a champion of the outsider–whether it’s Batman, Edward Scissorhands, or, hell, Beetlejuice and Jack Nicholson’s president in “Mars Attacks”–which probably explains why he was my teenage cinematic idol. The man understands those who stand outside the window looking enviously in, so it’s no wonder he was appointed director of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a celebration of the odd, if nothing else.

The film, based on Ransom Riggs’s novel, follows Jake (Asa Butterfield), a gawky Florida teen who discovers that the stories his recently deceased and curiously English grandfather (Terence Stamp) told about a weird mansion full of weirder children in Wales are true–or at least true enough that he received letters from the titular Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who you can probably guess runs the house. Jake and his father (Chris O’Dowd) travel to Wales, where–wouldn’t you know it–not only does Jake discover Miss Peregrine’s house, which has been caught in a time warp for 70 years, locking it in 1941 (hope you like Benny Goodman), but he learns that he’s the only child in the home who can see “hollows”: invisible monsters, led by the insidious, shape-shifting Mr. Barron (a fright wigged Samuel L. Jackson), with a penchant for eating peculiar children’s eyeballs.

Well, it’s based on a YA book. What did you expect? What did I expect? To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect–I’ve never read the books. Maybe the plot would make more sense if I had. As it stands, I’m not sure if it has to make sense, although it couldn’t have hurt the film if things had happened a little more slowly, giving the script room to breathe. That’s always the danger of adapting a book to film; if you aren’t careful, you end up with 127 minutes of “where did that character come from?”

Although, to be fair, the fact that none of the peculiar children were all that developed never bothered me. It was clear from the get go that the children weren’t there to be emotional entry points, but rather, to be weird points on a map of unfamiliar territory. There’s a girl with a mouth of the back of her head and a boy who barfs bees and…that’s all you’re going to learn about them, but that’s all you need to know. I only wish the main characters weren’t equally shallow.

The acting is solid, if unremarkable (both Stamp and O’Dowd are particularly underused). Eva Green is engaging as always, and she does seem to have a good time biting her pipe stem and looking coolly in charge. If anyone onscreen is having more fun than her, it’s Jackson as the cackling villain who, regardless, doesn’t chew quite enough scenery for me. It’s actually kind of funny that Jackson and Burton haven’t teamed up before, as both men have such a flair for the theatrical.

“Peculiar Children’s” strongest point is its look. Burton has always had an artistic eye, and he rarely lets his lens get bogged down with either muddy or uninteresting images. But it’s not until the climax that the movie really feels like Burton. It’s a particularly thrilling scene, where the shambling hollows engage in a larger than life fight with animated skeletons. Shades of outsiders again: bumbling adults, too caught up in their material reality, fail to notice the invisible war that’s going on right around them.

In the hands of a lesser director, the difficulties of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” would perhaps be too great to stand. But, with the capable direction of Burton, we are granted a flawed, albeit amusing, entertainment. It is the nature of Hollywood to craft mountainous franchises out of the molehills of experimentation. As of today, there hasn’t been a sequel announced, but if this is to be “Peculiar Children’s” fate, let us hope it remains in understanding hands.

Man on a mission: A critical review of “Solomon Kane” (2012)

November means Turkey Day for my stateside readership, so let’s round out this trilogy of pilgrim-hatted films by reviewing “Solomon Kane,” writer-director Michael J. Bassett’s rollicking ride to Puritanism…I guess. I must admit, I’ve not read too much Solomon Kane, which is not to say that I’ve not read too much Robert E. Howard. Quite the contrary, I am somewhat versed in the Conan mythos, have (unsurprisingly) read Howard’s contribution to the Lovecraft mythos, and have read the novelette “Pigeons From Hell,” which Stephen King called the best short-but-not-that-short story ever written. So I know my way around a Howard tale…but how does “Solomon Kane” stack up?

Well, right off the bat, it is not heartening to know that the film was made in 2009 but not released until 2012. Didst three years postponement a rightening make? Wast yon film shelved cos it suck? Or wast it just released one year after the reboot of “Conan the Barbarian” for free publicity? Leave us find out.

Solomon Kane (James Purefoy, going for a kind of Van Helsing via Hugh Jackman thing) is a bit of a bastard. He spends the first scene senselessly stabbing, blowing up and publicly humiliating so many Turks and Barbary pirates that he’s fair game for damnation when he encounters a demon at a fortress in North Africa (following a fairly impressive sequence involving mirrors). Knowing full well now that his soul will be eternally lost if he ever picks up the sword again, Kane renounces violence. As admirable as that is, it would hardly make for a good action flick, so you can bet your silver buckles it won’t last.

Years later, Kane is kicked out of the monastery in which he’s been hiding from the world (Robert Russel’s head monk offers some spotty theology: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” Maybe he just wanted Kane out of the building?). Refusing to return to his ancestral home in England–largely cos he murdered his older brother, and his father, Josaiah Kane (played by a surprisingly game Max von Sydow), is still a little pissed–Kane finds himself wandering again, neither here nor there.

He gets picked up by a covered wagon full of pilgrims (led by the always affable Pete Postlethwaite). They’re a fairly trusting lot, so we know at some point something going to set Kane off, and he’ll be decapitating and dismembering somewhat supernatural foes in no time. Maybe it’ll be the bands of roving bandits. Maybe it’ll be the leather-faced leatherface guy who’s running around England and magically making people into slaves. Maybe he’ll get frustrated by the lack of response from his pilgrim patron’s comely daughter. Or maybe it’ll be the presence those bird-masked plague doctors–cos you can’t have a quasi-medieval tale of redemption a few of without them. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll patch things up with his brother.

Convoluted recaps aside, there’s a lot to like about “Solomon Kane.” The sets are good. The costumes are good. The specials effects are…well, they’re not bad, and they are well used. There’s a lot for genre fans to grab onto in particular, what with the swordplay and fires in the background lighting gray and gloomy, doomy characters. And there are some interesting set-pieces: Along with that mirror sequence at the beginning, there is a young girl who turns into a levitating witch, a basement full of zombie-like folks and a crucifixion (which I, as a Classicist, can tell you is not Classically done). Plus, there’s an occasional bout of black humor (the fight in the graveyard, for example) to balance things out.

Of course, the film’s not all joy and dismemberment. There are a couple of things to dislike. For one, it has a fairly generic and uninspired soundtrack. The script is also not the best. This is essentially a superhero origin story, which means that it has the same elements of any superhero origin story. On the one hand, it’s often clunky and tedious; on the other, it practically writes itself! Maybe that’s a bad thing…

So to answer my initial question, I don’t think the film sat on the shelf cos it sucked. The film is fine. I think it sat around because they didn’t know what to do with it. The problem, for the writers, distributors and audiences, is figuring out who that guy in the capotain really is. In one scene, Kane is surprised in a seemingly abandoned church and draws his sword on a man of the cloth. “Forgive me, father,” he apologizes, sheathing his sword. “The times we live in.” Indeed.

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 Easter-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.