Review: The Witch (2016)

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The Witch is an extraordinary film that fundamentally illustrates two things. Firstly, it strongly shows that independent cinema still has a beating heart. Secondly, it showcases the virtues of the cinematic form, which is at a crucial time when the existence of the medium is being questioned amidst the equalitarian view of content and a so-called golden age of television. On a personal level, the film represented one of those rare nourishing cinematic experiences that were I to have every year then the sad state of affairs of the cinema would be tolerable.

Before the ending credits start, there is a message that appears on screen which says, “This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.” The written declaration is the primary virtue of the Witch. Writer/Director Robert Eggers nearly reaches Kubrickian levels of exactness, with his meticulous construction of 17th century New England. In fact, at worst one could accuse the film of merely being an exercise in slavish period recreation however this is countered by Eggers’ excellent direction.

Firstly, Eggers’ framing is disciplined and poised. It allows for detailed shots of many of the environments such as the vastly tall and sinister woods, the small farm that the family inhabit and their secluded darkly brown house. Eggers holds the camera still for many moments throughout the picture, which results in an acute sense of constant confinement in the situation that has befallen the characters. Moreover, it gives the infrequent scenes of the Witch a heightened sense of terror because we are witnessing the creature and its practices in a very procedural manner without any explanation by either the creature or the people in the story.

Furthermore, Eggers has constructed an intrinsically quiet and introspective film that when watching it strikes one as intruding upon an exceptionally powerful and private prayer. As a result of this quality, seemingly ordinary sounds such as the thrashing of torrential rain, the laughter of children and the neighing of a horse heightened the senses into a state of constant uneasiness and shuddering. As much as the atmosphere and imagery, Eggers has a firm understanding of the importance sound design in a horror film. It subtly reinforces and strengthens an underlying sense of fear.

All of this sure-handed direction is encapsulated in a five-minute scene in the midst of the third act. The downtrodden central family have been searching for their only son (Caleb) who was tempted by the Witch living in the woods, and he returns to them in a weakened state. As Caleb lies in the family barn, his family stand by his side debating about their future. The sequence is chilling and indelible in its simplicity and seamless tonal changes.

At first, it starts out as a grisly display as the awakened Caleb is describing the pain and breakdown of his body while convulsing and trying to spit out a giant object in his throat, which turns out to be an apple. At this moment, the apple represents an ironic twist of fate as he lied about looking for apples earlier in the film when actually he was in the woods with his father. At the same time, the horrific image is a powerful reminder of the omnipresence and omniscience of the title character.

Then the sequence becomes serene as the young boy describes his experiences of seeing Christ and achieving a sense of peace and transcendence in the last moments of his life. Finally, the scene takes a feverish and paranoid turn as most of the family decide to renounce their eldest daughter, Thomasin who is played with captivating innocence and enthralling mischief by Anya Taylor-Joy. They do this because they believe the young girl to be a Witch who has brought about all the misfortune that has struck the family in the recent past.

Aside from the film-making, which is effortless and potent in its insular scope, the scene is also effective in conveying the central theme of the picture. There is a sense of interplay between community and religious purity that pervades the entire film. The latter can only be achieved if it is within the confines of the former. At the beginning of the film, the family get excommunicated from their puritanical community due to an unspecified religious crime. For the rest of the film, they are left to make sense of their commitment to God in the face of this event, crippling poverty and escalating personal catastrophes.

As events unfold, there is a sense of distance that develops within the family, which contrasts with their attempts to accept God’s will individually. The previously discussed scene shows the family temporarily join in a communal prayer in order to free their son of the pain that he is experiencing. However, the overwhelming suspicion and isolation that has divided the family up until to this point fundamentally prove to be their downfall as events take a far more sinister turn in the tail end of the picture.

Review: Videodrome (1983)

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In Videodrome, director David Cronenberg’s usual fascination with the body comes in the form of a repeated phrase in the third act, ‘Long live the new flesh.’ On the one hand, the line can be read it as a celebration of Max Renn’s (James Woods) bodily transformations in the midst of vivid hallucinations that he experiences as a result of the Videodrome broadcast signal, which he investigates through the course of the film. The reading can be supported by a deleted scene in which Max is in a limo with girlfriend Nikki Brand. (Deborah Harry) Brand expresses her envy of Max’s susceptibility to the Videodrome program and the hallucinations that he undergoes. There is a rapturous and profound curiosity when she asks him- what are they like to experience? The scene also illustrates that only some people can be truly affected by Videodrome, which speaks to the inherent distinctiveness of Max’s bodily evolution.

Alternatively, the declaration can be inferred as a fundamental tragic irony because of its use in being a presupposed liberation of Videodrome’s deep seeded control of Renn. In the closing moments of the picture, Nicki, who is one of the advocates of Videodrome asks Max to utter the empowering words before committing suicide.The gut-wrenching tragedy of this final scene is that the seductive siren posits to our hero that in order to truly destroy Videodrome, one must transcend the limits of the body, which makes the declaration all the more dire in its implications for the main character.

In a 1992 interview with Esquire, Cronenberg expounds upon his view of death and whether or not anything exists beyond the Metaphysical concept. He simply states that “We are all going to die, that is the end of all consciousness. There is no afterlife. There is no God.” With this in mind, one can conclude that the last image of the film has a definitive sense of finality as opposed to being an exercise in ambiguity.

Cronenberg’s direction is commendable in its meticulous construction. One scene that encapsulates this quality is a seemingly belaboured sequence when one first watches the film. However, in context of the picture, it illustrates Cronenberg’s directorial proficiency. The scene in question starts with a citywide panning shot that stops when a white satellite is in focus, appearing in the background of the frame. Then the camera pans across the object as we see it slowly move outward. The sequence ends with a subtle cross cut as we go into the office where the satellite is being controlled via a manual control board. In the sequence, Cronenberg has visually conveyed the painstaking precision and hardship of finding the pirated Videodrome signal.

Moreover, there is a wonderful sense of coherence and progression in Cronenberg’s surrealism, which comes from a deep rooted nightmarish logic in the surreal sequences.In a 1983 interview, James Woods elaborates upon this aspect in two ways. Firstly, he comments on the fact that a nightmare can begin with a superficial normalcy but then can subtly transform because of an element that is marginally wrong. An example of this could be if one’s arm suddenly started to stretch out as far as the eye can see in a mundane situation such as a person being at a computer terminal in the workplace. As a result of this, he concludes that nightmares are terrifying because of a fundamental “emotional and subliminal terror.”

An excellent example of this is in a scene where Max is watching a videotape of Professor Brian O’Blivion. (Jack Creley) The camera is primarily focused upon on OBlivion delivering his lecture on Videodrome and its effects on the mind. However, the camera occasionally cuts back to shots of Max’s reaction and his stomach as he is sitting on the sofa wearing his gun belt and trousers. At first, his tummy looks normal however through the course of the scene, a single straight line scar develops, and this eventually culminates in that area of the tummy becoming a pulsating and open entrance. It swallows the gun that Max has when he is trying to explore it and mysteriously returns to normal at the end of the sequence. Rick Baker’s ingenious special makeup effects work combined with Howard Shore’s majestic and ominous synth score make this one of the finest sequences in Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre.

In regards to the performances, the most captivating and lingering one comes from Deborah Harry. There a fascinating sense of the external with her performance as Nicki Brand in Videodrome. The lead singer of Blondie plays the part with a casual detachment and mild amusement as though she is having a perceptual outer body experience and is witnessing her physical experiences as if they are happening to someone else. At the same time, there is a strange and inherent seductive quality that Harry has, which comes from her initial coyness and eventual boundary pushing nature. Both of these qualities come together in a wonderfully bizarre sequence that combines the overt sense of unreality with an underlying erotic charge.

The scene simply has Nicki communicating with Max via the television screen in his apartment. She repeatedly commands him with the following words: “Come to me, come to Nicki.” Harry delivers the line as though she is finding delight in casting a powerful spell. As Max nears his television in a heightened state, the object becomes a sentintent and responds to his very touch in a sexually charged manner as every area starts to contract and express life. The scene culminates in Nicki’s lips coming out of the television and Max engulfing himself within the holographic image, as though he is in the midst of a prolonged and passionate kiss.

In a great number of his films, Cronenberg’s eroticism has always represented a firm punctuation that marks a point of no return for his main characters. For example, in his remake of The Fly, the love scene between scientist Seth Brundle and lover Veronica Quaife showcased the former at the peak of his physical prowess as a human being while also subtly hinting at his inevitable and terrifying metamorphosis into the titular creature. A more recent example from the director’s filmography comes from his 2005 film- A History of Violence.

In that picture, there are two sex scenes, which ultimately encapsulate the separate identities of Viggo Mortensen’s character. The latter stands out because of its unrelenting depiction of Mortensen’s second identity, which is aggressive and violent. He assertively grabs his wife’s ankle as she is trying to run up the stairs and then proceeds to have his way with her like an angry beast with pent up energy and rage. The scene is not so much a cementing of his former identity but more of an illustration of how it can no longer be contained as it affects his loved ones in the home environment.

Nevertheless, what makes David Cronenberg’s Videodrome truly transcend is its commentary on censorship and how it wonderfully melds with the Canadian director’s primary thematic fixation of exploring the human body. When Max first gets a glimpse of the Videodrome broadcast, he witnesses a short clip of unrelenting and seemingly unending violence. His reaction is not one of fear or moral revulsion but sheer curiosity. He is determined to show the content on his niche television station- Channel 88. As the film goes on, Max is warned that Videodrome is not worth investigating because it has something that he does not have, which is a “A Philosophy.”

In the tail end of the picture, the rationale behind Videodrome’s existence is to make North America less soft because the rest of the world is tougher and that particular region of the country needs to follow suit. From all this, one can make the meaningful assumption that Cronenberg thinks that witnessing a seemingly random act of violence has no adverse effect on a person’s behaviour. The negative effects only occur when there is an elemental ideology behind the presentation of extreme force.

Moreover, in the BBC’s 1997 documentary- ‘David Cronenberg and the Cinema of the Extreme’ the director expresses some interesting points about conceptualising his protagonist Max Renn. Firstly, he makes an astute observation about the nature of central characters in films. He thinks that when a central character has a fundamental moral stance that it is merely at the service of the narrative of the film as opposed to being a belief that a filmmaker advocates and upholds. As presented in the picture, Max Renn is morally ambivalent which results in his bodily transformations and eventual mind control by the figureheads of Videodrome much more realistic because his worldview has not been changed.

By painting Renn in this manner, Cronenberg posits an egalitarian view on people being affected by ideologically driven violence, it can transform anyone’s behaviour. At the same time, one could interpret Renn as the kind of human being that can get easily swayed to commit violence because he has a no moral conviction and therefore his will can be bent much more easily. The social commentary that emerges out of this does speak the film’s power in being enduringly relevant. Contemporary media sensations do have an undercurrent of ideologically even if they meant to be superfluous candy floss entertainment on the surface.

For example, last year there was a social media sensation called the ‘Kylie Jenner lip challenge’ which involved people going to extreme means to blow up their lips to look like the youngest member of the Jenner clan. The results were disastrous, to say the least. They ranged from a report of one’s person lips turning purple to a harrowing video of a girl struggling to breathe. With this example, one feels that Cronenberg’s pervading message of ideologically driven material having a destructive effect on the body and mind, particularly if a person lacks any sense of firm moral grounding is still potent. For this reason and countless others, Videodrome remains a prominent standard bearer for horror cinema and its legitimacy as a cinematic genre.