With the release of The Witch and It Follows, 2015 was an exceptional year for the horror genre. The Witch, Robert Egger’s directorial debut proved to be the more provocative of the two; not surprising, given that Puritan oppression as horror strikes close to home. Even more predictable is the expansive hatred for such an original film by formula horror fans. They’re a tribe of Neanderthals, too obtuse to recognize one of the ballsiest film of the last decade.
The Witch‘s subtitle tells us it’s “A New-England Folktale,” set in the mid-seventeenth century. It opens with family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) banished from this Puritan paradise for unclear reasons. Like Adam and Eve, William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are forced to flee to the wilderness, a forest setting that recalls numerous fairy tales. With them are their children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the infant Samuel.
Like most evangelical sects, William’s religion practices a type of anti-ritualism (setting them apart from liturgical competitors); but, as we see from his dialogue with Caleb, a ritualistic anti-ritualism ritualism sets in. Caleb is a willing subscriber.
Along with the rituals comes Puritan oppression, and a superstitious anti-superstition soon rears its horrific head. Thomasin, left in charge of Samuel, entertains him with a game of peekaboo, but on the fourth uncovering of her eyes, Samuel has vanished.
Did a scarlet witch abduct Samuel? Or, is Thomasin guilty of witchcraft herself? Initially, each family member professes guilt over the disappearance of Samuel, but true to the tenets of Puritanism, the antagonists—or imagined antagonists—take feminine forms.
In sharp contrast, Caleb, the male child, is his father’s candidate for godly martyrdom. The proof is in the pudding when Caleb’s holy innocence is tested, aroused by Thomasin’s cleavage. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw lead a cast that gives stunning performance, restoring our faith in acting.
The film is replete with beautifully horrifying imagery, including a blood-spurting black goat and one of the most unnerving finales in recent memory; straight from bowels of a Goya canvas. Eggers’ sense of period detail, as impressive as it is, is topped by his finding the pulse of the Puritan mindset. The eye of his hurricane is Taylor-Joy who, abandoned by God and family, spans a range in a single film that most actors can’t accomplish in an entire body of work.
It Follows is the second feature effort from director David Robert Mitchell, who impressed with his debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011). Teen Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex in the back seat of her car with current beau. Since the setting is the horror genre, we all know from the much-quoted Scream (1996) that this means certain death. Sort of.
Many commentators have honed in on the sex and death equation and see It Follows as a parable about STDS. Sort of. Cool and kinetic, It Follows revels in its paradoxes. When Jay’s boy toy copulates with her, he passes on a stalking demon that can take any form. It’s slow but lethal, and the only way to rid oneself of this shape-shifting ogre is to copulate with someone else before it turns you into beached leg of lamb. Sort of. There’s a catch, of course. If your victim doesn’t pass it on, It will return to Follow you.
John Wayne and Howard Hawks were mightily offended by Carl Foreman’s script for High Noon (1952), which depicted a narcissistic community refusing to help their neighbors. In response they made Rio Bravo in 1959, then remade it twice. It Follows has it both ways. To prevent her own demise, Jay has to play the narcissist, but she does so reluctantly, and depends on her community of friends for help (parents are out of the question, as it should be).
Mitchell chooses his predators smartly, ranging from a child to a naked old man perched on a roof. He clearly has fun pulling from a bag of personality types, embracing the genre tropes, and playing with them like silly putty. References to Val Lewton and Jacques Turner’s Cat People (1942) abound, along with John Carpenter (including Rich Vreeland’s score) but, like Lewton, Mitchell is not content to merely repeat the past. He’s too progressive for that, and for conservative horror geeks.