The Woman In The Woods: The Witch (2016) and Horror Narrative

The Witch (2016)

*originally published on The News Hub


Whatever you do, don’t go into the woods – there are witches there. That’s the basic moral of The Witch, one of the odder and more provocative works of cinematic horror to appear in the past few years. Directed by first timer Robert Eggers and without a single star to its name, it has received a wide theater release on the strength of critical praise from Sundance and beyond. It won the Directing Award at Sundance and has been critically touted as the “scariest film of the year,” a slow-burning folktale that reaches back to the roots of Puritanism and our ancestors’ terror of Satanic possession. Critics have dubbed it a milestone in horror, a game changer, a new world order.

There is no doubt that The Witch is a remarkable film. At a basic cinematic level, it’s a brilliant use of atmosphere: the central family occupy a cabin on the fringes of a haunted wood (Canada, standing in for New England), replete with fog and winding, uncertain paths that lead farther from civilization. The film’s well-placed moments of violence and slow-building tension found themselves within the hysterical underpinnings of Puritan religion, making the entire film as much a rumination on sin and salvation as it is a fairly straightforward haunting narrative, the fear of the witch in the woods. It is an effective, intelligent, and somewhat inaccessible art-house film – a film that deals more with the vagaries of belief and superstition than it does with actual scares. There are long sections of silence punctuated by dialogue that has characters speaking in a dialect steeped in religious tradition – a tradition that is never fully elucidated, with Biblically founded terrors that are never fully explained. The Witch is practically a slice of life, with little explanation for much of its horror. It is many things, and all of them interesting, but it is not the horror film we have come to expect.

The Witch both is and is not a horror film. It hits on specific tropes, but does not spend much time in examining their cause within the world of the film. The family is ejected from their colony, forced to eke out their existence in isolation, yet we never learn why they were removed in the first place. Nor is it terribly clear how isolated they really are – we know that they still trade to a degree, and that the colony is still accessible, if a day’s ride away. The film introduces concepts of the demonic possession of women and children, communion with Satan, blood sacrifice, and witches’ Sabbaths, yet the religious underpinnings of these beliefs are developed only through cryptic dialogue and never outright exposition. These are not modern people haunted by an age-old evil at odds with contemporary belief structures, as in films like Paranormal Activity, but a family steeped in a cultural tradition where these things are very real. The Witch advertises itself as a “New England folktale,” and it is something like listening to a folktale from an antecedent culture we no longer live in. The Witch does indeed hit generic horror markers, but from the perspective of foundational horror myths themselves. It looks back in time to treat of terror from the source.

The horror genre has gone through numerous permutations in its long, complex history. Even if one passes by horror’s literary and folktale antecedents, the changes in genre from the advent of film to the contemporary period mean that some traditional horror is almost unrecognizable as scary to us now. Horror is steeped in the bending of tradition – it possesses its own rules, which it subsequently breaks, and then enforces new rules based on the breaking of the old ones. In the most simplistic terms, horror brings up the fears of the culture from which it stems, often altered or manipulated so that our monsters are but amalgams of our collective terrors. Horror is the collective cultural nightmare and even if we don’t always find it particularly scary, we always see something of ourselves within both the victims and the monsters. In this context, what are we to make of The Witch?


One of the through-lines of The Witch is fear not just of the Other, but of the female Other. Female monstrosity is as old as the horror genre, and The Witch seeks for some of the historical antecedents of the fear of the feminine. Early in the film, the audience learns that witches are real and that they do all of the things that old Puritan stories say they do: stealing unbaptized children, dancing naked at midnight, having sex with Satan, transforming their shapes, leading men (or boys) astray. From our cultural perspective, The Witch reinforces the continued contemporary fear of the feminine – the witch (one of them at least) is an ugly monstrosity, the very symbol of the monstrous feminine. The film does not treat of the viciousness of witch trials or accusations, nor does it account for the foundational fears of powerful (and sexual) women that made the Puritans so very hysterical. Witch lore is rich in manipulative misogyny and power dynamics, yet The Witch avoids this dialogue in favor of a family drama driven by externalized fear and internal strife. At the same time, the film provides a catharsis of a sort, as the teenage girl at the edge of womanhood chooses to reject her father’s repressive religion and ally herself to the (feminine) darkness. The film does not fall into the error of proclaiming itself as feminist or anti-feminist, but rather presents a complex, multi-layered narrative that presents itself as an examination into the foundations of contemporary horror.

The horror genre has been going through yet another shift in focus. A genre often – though not exclusively – dominated by patriarchal prerogative, it now has begun to focalize through the female experience. Women in horror have often been monsters and have often been victims, but rarely have they been the driving narrative force. Rarely have they possessed the camera, either behind it or in front of it, and so films like The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, It Follows, Teeth, and, now, The Witch are unique in their focus on the feminine experience, both from within the characters themselves and from their external participation patriarchal structure. Even the original version of Paranormal Activity, a film that arguably began the most recent low-budget, low maintenance horror craze, was directed through the experience of a woman faced with male disbelief and then fear. The Witch, though far from a feminist work, adds another piece to the puzzle.

In returning to the origins of American horror, the film places itself in a unique and problematic position vis-a-vis its audience. The audience with which I saw The Witch was not particularly receptive to what the film was trying to achieve. While they were relatively respectful during the first half of the film, the building of tension and atmosphere began to give way to boredom. The people beside, behind, and in front began to talk, and then to giggle during silences or periods with long stretches of dialogue. The lack of jump scares, of any real recognizable “horror” tropes, evidently got to them. By the time the film had ended, both my friend and myself were seething with anger because we had been robbed of our cinematic experience.

I think this experience was indicative of a failing not of The Witch, but of it’s marketing, and of the way that critics have treated it. The Witch is not a horror film in the contemporary sense – it is an introspective drama, a folktale with horror elements that nonetheless cannot and should not occupy the same space as Paranormal Activity. It is about a culture that you must have some background with going in, as well as a willingness to pay attention to the film’s structuring of religious superstition. To offer this film to audiences with the promise of “the scariest film ever made” is to set yourself up for exactly the problem I had: an audience that grows increasingly frustrated with the film failing to fulfill new genre conventions. And so the film suffers, along with those who wish to experience The Witch as it actually stands, and not as critics imply that it’s supposed to stand.

Even as critics tout the film, audience response has been overwhelmingly negative. The complaint, I think, is not so much that The Witch is a bad film, but that rather it does not appeal to the things that many audiences want it to appeal to. It is an art-house film, applicable to those who want to investigate terror in the silences, the power of Calvinist religion, the fear of sin, the origins of horror. This is a world in which witches are real, in which children can accuse their elders of communing with the devil, in which Lucifer can appear in the form of a black goat, in which freedom comes at the price of your soul. This is the world of the Puritans, a world of darkness and real terror, but a world that is full of silence, of struggle, of random death and rampant dedication to a very strict system of belief. It is not a world of things that go bump in the night.


I believe that The Witch will ultimately receive its due and will be understood for the thing that it is and not the thing that it is not. At the very least its critically enforced popularity asks greater questions about what scares us as a culture, both where those fears came from and where they might be going. The future of the horror genre is bright, it seems, even as we wander in the darkness.

I Shot Jesse James (1949)

I Shot Jesse James (1949)

*Originally published on The News Hub


When we think of director Samuel Fuller we tend to think of films noir about displaced men, damaged women, criminals searching for redemption, and tabloid stories expanded to the level of mythology. Yet Fuller cut his teeth originally in the Western genre, with his first feature film I Shot Jesse James. This might seem like a strange starting for the crime reporter and veteran turned director, especially for those already acquainted with Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, but I Shot Jesse James shares remarkable affinities with those more perfected works of tabloid filmmaking.

I Shot Jesse James takes as its subject the now iconic shooting of Jesse James by his friend and fellow gang member Robert Ford. After being injured in a bank robbery, Ford (John Ireland) holes up in Jesse’s (Reed Hadley) house to recover. Ford is in love with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), a singer who keeps on refusing his marriage proposals because he can’t give her a stable existence. When Ford learns about the bounty on Jesse’s head, including a substantial reward and amnesty from imprisonment or execution, he chooses the coward’s way and decides to betray and murder his best friend.

James’s death is the catalyst for Ford’s narrative to truly begin, but the film is not particularly concerned with the relationship between the two men. In the aftermath of the killing, Ford finds himself vilified in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of Cynthy, who wants nothing more to do with him. He’s given only a fraction of the reward and forced to make a new living, branded a coward and a traitor. After a brief stint in which Ford re-enacts the murder onstage for an eager public, he heads out West to Colorado on a search for silver and gold, which he hopes will be the key to make Cynthy marry him.


I Shot Jesse James could have been a straightforward Western, but Fuller turns his attention to the internal, as Ford grapples with his cowardice, his anger, and his sense of betrayal. The murder of Jesse invigorates Ford’s nascent self-loathing. Far from a real villain, he keeps trying to take the easy way out, insisting on his love for Cynthy despite her consistent rejection of him, fooling himself into the belief that everything he did, he did for love. Ireland plays Robert Ford with a pathos tinged by hollowness – he seems to not quite understand why Cynthy would be horrified by him, or why the public would vilify him. While not an inherently likable character, his tragedy lies in the flaws that pushed him to murder Jesse in the first place. He’s a coward not because he’s afraid of Jesse James, but because he truly does love the man he murders and so cannot bring himself to look his victim or his crime squarely in the eye. In a particularly powerful sequence, Ford listens to a wandering singer sing “The Ballad of Jesse James,” detailing Jesse’s murder with references to Ford as “the dirty little coward/who shot Mr. Howard.” Each word is a bullet in his heart, and while the singer shakes with fear that Ford will kill him, the viewer sees Ford’s palpable pain. He sees himself as a coward just as much as anyone else, and it’s a stigma he must continue to carry with him, for all he does to eradicate it. He finds a short-lived redemption in the wilds of Colorado, but his continued obsession with Cynthy forces him back into the same pattern, grappling with flaws that will never be resolved.

Fuller’s usually indulgent cinematography is circumspect in I Shot Jesse James. There are no indulgent flourishes, explicit POV shots, or surreal sequences that will so palpably characterize later films like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. Fuller is beginning to develop his style, focalizing the narrative through Ford’s experience and forcing the viewer into a position of sympathy with an occasionally unsympathetic protagonist. Most powerful is the build-up to Jesse’s murder, as Ford contemplates the ease with which he can shoot his friend without even the smallest shred of danger to himself through numerous focalized shots of Jesse’s back.

There are flaws in I Shot Jesse James, though most of them can be put down to generic conventions. This is a B-movie, full of melodrama and heightened emotions, with actors screaming and crying rather than performing with subtlety. The film buys into the characterization of James as a Robin Hood, an outlaw who only kills when he has to, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – a major departure from the actual history of the James Gang. But this is not a film concerned with history or even verisimilitude. This is the stuff of legend, the story of a legendary outlaw and a legendary coward. Ford’s story gains traction as the film reveals him as more complex, more tragic than the man he murdered. While it never compare favorably with a Bergman film, I Shot Jesse James doesn’t particularly want to. Robert Ford’s tragedy is a melodrama set for the stage.

The Love Witch (2016)

The Love Witch (2016)


Every once in a while, a film comes along that defies audience expectations, even when the audience is more than prepared to indulge in whatever it offers. The Love Witch, from writer/director Anna Biller, is such a film: a gleefully malevolent celebration of thrillers and horror films from the 1960s and 70s…and so much more.

The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch who leaves San Francisco after the death of her ex-husband to start life anew in a small California town. Her project? To find a real man, one who embodies all that (she believes) masculinity should be. To do so, Elaine has elected to use “love magic” to become every male fantasy, to embody every dream and desire that an individual man wants, to fulfill his every wish. And she does, seducing a local college professor (Clive Ashborn), a friend’s husband (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and police detective Griff (Gian Keys). The problem is that Elaine is just too good with her love magic, and the bodies begin to pile up with every lover Elaine takes.

Summarizing The Love Witch oversimplifies it, though, and ignores the extreme aestheticism and referentiality that the film relies on for its ideological outlook. The Love Witch is spectacularly subtle in its lack of subtlety. Elaine waxes eloquent about her philosophy surrounding love and witchcraft, much to the dismay of her friend Trish (Laura Widdell), who finds her attitudes strikingly anti-feminist. But Elaine’s speeches, like The Love Witch itself, conceals a deft sleight of hand as it reinforces and then punctures the male ego. Men are treated as almost childlike, slightly boring, basically useless, whose inability to look at women as people is a failing that they can’t overcome and that will ultimately destroy them. As Professor King sobs about never being able to find a woman to match his fantasy and his pain in remaining unfulfilled, the film punishes his view of women as objects simply by indulging him to the fullest extent.

Elaine’s deceased husband, remembered in voiceover, berates her for not losing weight, for not keeping the house clean enough, for not getting dinner on the table fast enough. In attempting to fulfill his fantasies of what she should be, Elaine ultimately kills him. She internalizes her husband’s psychological and emotional abuse, reconstituting herself as the ultimate female monster. Elaine’s extreme femininity destroys men by fulfilling their desires, by establishing an extreme gender binary in which they will never be “man enough” for the woman that they’ve created. She is a sort of female Frankenstein’s Monster, a creation of masculine hubris, who turns upon her creators and offers them everything they want.


It soon becomes apparent that all the women of the film are struggling under the weight of male expectations. But the women gain power in taking possession of their own objectification, rendering it a source of strength and directing back towards the dull (and singularly unattractive) men who demand so much from them. The male fantasy is reconstituted as a female one, the finding of a “real man,” with punishment meted out to those who do not fulfill that fantasy. Elaine is not a cypher or an image. She is a full person, wrapped the trappings of seductive femininity – thick makeup, a long black wig, garter belts and stockings – and is fully at home and invested in those trappings as part of her identity. She seeks a man to fulfill her fantasies, to provide her with the completion that men demand from her.

The Love Witch coats its complex battle of the sexes in a lush, referential mis-en-scene. Everything from costuming and makeup to the striking color coordination of its interior design, lighting, and photography interacts so as to produce a sense of a film out of time. While borrowing some of its aesthetic from numerous 1950s and 60s Technicolor films, The Love Witch produces a complex dialogue among those films, undermining their often anti-feminist bent by taking some of their arguments to an extreme.

Direct visual references abound: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds appears in the rear-projected driving sequences and the arrival of a “witch” in a small California town, a la Melanie Daniels. The plot nods to Bell, Book, and Candle, the 1958 film starring Kim Novak as a Greenwich Village witch who uses her powers to entrap Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo is another visual and thematic reference point: Elaine fulfills male fantasy in much the same way that Kim Novak’s Madeleine is forced to. But The Love Witch twists the theme, giving Elaine and her fellow witches the power in the relationships, becoming male fantasies only to exact control over those ideals. The shaping of a woman to masculine desires becomes a source of female power, not enslavement. Where Madeleine is punished for her deception, Elaine evades punishment, taking full possession of her sexual and emotional identity.

The Love Witch is a dark and sumptuous film that demands a viewer with a certain experience of retro cinema. It interacts so much with a very specific past that its cinematic antecedents – and therefore its meaning – may easily be lost in the shuffle. It is the male gaze, male control, that brings destruction and death. Elaine becomes every image of femininity, and by controlling that image, destroys the men who demand it. The film has a cinematic purity, so conversant with its own influences, yet so different from all of them that it manages to transcend the labels of pastiche, nostalgia, and parody. The Love Witchmuch like Elaine, both is and is not exactly what it appears to be. And there are very few films that can lay claim to that.

Evil Eye (1963)

Evil Eye (1963)

*Evil Eye is available to stream on Shudder.


Continuing my probably unhealthy love affair with the films of Mario Bava: Evil Eye, Bava’s 1963 film that combines psychological horror, sexploitation, and some stylized horror to become the first true giallo. The Italian title is La ragazza che sapeva troppo, or: The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and that actually makes more sense than the American title tacked on, I suppose, to give the film more supernatural horror credentials that it doesn’t really have. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is very much in keeping with the film’s underlying satire on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is referenced a few times with tongue quite firmly in cheek.

Evil Eye opens with Nora Davis (Letícia Román) traveling to visit her ailing aunt in Rome. Nora’s obsessed with murder mysteries, turning her life into a romanticized pulp novel. After a rather nightmarish experience at the airport, she arrives at her aunt’s house to find the old lady seriously ill in bed, attended by the good-looking doctor Marcello (John Saxon). During a terrible storm that night, the phone and electricity flickers out just as Nora’s aunt goes into cardiac arrest, leading Nora on a desperate run through the rain down the Spanish steps to contact Marcello at the hospital. She’s mugged and knocked out, and awakens just in time to witness the violent stabbing of a young woman.

Nora spends the next few weeks going in and out of consciousness, attended by the kindly Marcello, who tells her that there was no murder victim: she must have been hallucinating. More or less recovered but still convinced that she witnessed a death, Nora attends her aunt’s funeral, where she runs into Laura Torrani (Valentina Cortese), a friend who lives in the Piazza di Spagna, right where the murder occurred. Rather than cutting Nora’s trip to Italy short, Laura offers to let the young American stay in her house. A series of somewhat confused events prompt Nora to believe that she’s still being pursued by the shadowy murderer she saw the night of the storm. She enlists Marcello’s help in tracking down the killer and possibly saving her life.


Evil Eye certainly earns its title as the first giallo – not overly bloody, it’s still a bizarre, nightmarish film, full of extreme emotions and stylized cinematography. The imagery emphasizes the psycho-sexual pulp of the details while not being fussed with developing a particularly coherent plot. The film wanders from point to point, introducing weird characters – like a doctor who convinces Nora that she has second sight – who suddenly vanish. Nora’s parade of bizarre experiences have a comedic edge to them, as Bava proves himself aware that this story is really just a ridiculous piece of camp.

The humor is the most unnerving element in Evil Eye. Nora’s hysterical terror is played partially for laughs, as in a scene where she prepares an elaborate trap to catch the killer. She’s also quite right to be scared, as the viewer knows, but Bava punctures some of his own stylization by calling attention to just how silly it all really is. Evil Eye, like Black Sabbath, bears more than passing resemblance to Corman films of the same era, taking the terror seriously while simultaneously allowing the audience to delight in the camp.

Evil Eye is a bit boring spots, especially the transition between Nora witnessing the murder and becoming convinced that she’s actually in danger. The secondary romance with Marcello, while amusing, takes up too much time, as do the pair’s endless investigations into the possibility that Nora actually had a vision of a murder that occurred ten years ago. The meandering, dream-like nature of the film might place it in the giallo tradition (anyone who has watched enough Argento knows that those films aren’t exactly coherent), but unfortunately that doesn’t make it altogether interesting.

I was told that Evil Eye was secondary Bava, and I’ll certainly go along with that assessment. While interesting for those of us who want to trace the foundations of Italian horror traditions, it’s not compelling enough to warrant a second viewing. Still, the combination of humor and the horror is so weird that I found myself giggling about the film long after I’d finished it. That’s as good a recommendation as any.

Evil Eye is streaming on Shudder, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.

Off The Rails (2016)

Off The Rails (2016)

*Streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.


This year has seen a preponderance of excellent documentaries, as no doubt the Oscar race will attest. Many have been all-too-topical, as increasing police violence, hate crimes, and the divide between the rich and poor ever widens. Adam Irving’s Off the Rails joins Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Andrew Cohn’s Night School in an examination of the intersection of poverty, race, and perceived criminality, this time through the singular life and more singular crimes of Darius McCollum.

McCollum’s story is an odd one: born and raised in Queens, he became increasingly fascinated by the New York transit systems, especially the subway, as an escape into the calming world of schedules and time tables that contrasted with the uncertainty of his life above-ground. Transit workers favored him with tours and lessons on the intricate workings of the system, increasing his fascination and plunging him deeper in an obsession. When he was fifteen, McCollum wound up accidentally commandeering a subway train when a transit worker left him in charge. He safely made all the stops along the route until he was caught and arrested. Thus began a so-called “life of crime,” which resulted in his being jailed 32 times for impersonating transit officials and stealing trains and buses. McCollum became what he refers to as a “volunteer” in the MTA, attending trade union meetings, working for workers’ rights, and even successfully impersonating a superintendent. He’s spent twenty-three years in a maximum security facility, despite never injuring anyone.

If ever there was a criminal who shouldn’t be in prison, it’s Darius McCollum. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, though this made little difference to the municipal authorities or the DA’s office. His crimes, while potentially dangerous, are victimless: despite commandeering hundreds of subway trains and buses, McCollum has never injured anyone, and, according to the film, has even been responsible for helping people in crisis. His passion for the MTA is real; his love for it unique among workers. Yet he’s never been employed by the MTA, who views him as a danger and an embarrassment. The news media refers to him as “joy-riding” on trains, labelling him “notorious,” a “transit bandit,” as though his crimes are entirely self-serving and constitute public endangerment.

The film spends most of its runtime in examining McCollum’s character and obsession, conducting long interviews with him, his mother, attorneys, social workers, and psychiatrists. A picture emerges of a bright, capable boy who took to the transit system as a world in which things made sense: trains run on a schedule, there are rules and regulations, structure. Because of his very public arrests, McCollum was barred from working for the MTA (he applied to them twice and was rejected both times). As his crimes mounted up, the MTA continued to decline to employ him. His lack of comfort and direction in life only made him retreat more to the place where things made the most sense, stealing more trains and resulting in a cycle that landed him in increasingly secure facilities until he was imprisoned at Rikers Island, awaiting trial.

But although the film takes McCollum as a very special case, his experience exposes the severe failings of a criminal justice system that is incapable of dealing with a man like him: someone whose crimes are strange, non-violent, and largely non-threatening. Judges refuse to take his Asperger’s into account; he’s left in prison for years awaiting trial; he’s given little social or economic support once he does emerge from prison. Now in his fifties, he’s never held a regular job, never paid rent, never supported himself. Despite a small support network of attorneys, social workers, his mother, and an Imam who worked in his prison, McCollum continues to return to the same behavioral pattern, unable to break the cycle by himself and evidently without the extensive support and therapy that he needs. The system has rejected him, preferring to spend millions of dollars prosecuting and imprisoning him rather than trying to help and understand his problems and find a solution. It is a spectacular failure of the justice system that a non-violent criminal, a man who has never harmed anyone, has spent so much time behind bars.

Off the Rails has a few weaknesses. As McCollum falls in and out of jail, the story itself takes on a cyclical structure, which does become a bit wearing nearing the end. There are also gaps in the narrative: interviews with psychiatrists and Asperger’s advocates are featured, but it’s never explained how long or how often they’ve worked with McCollum, or if they’re simply there as authorities on Asperger’s. The film doesn’t really address the spectacular failure of a transit system with such lax security that someone without licensing or official training can operate a transit vehicle – a brief scene at the MTA bus depot shows that McCollum, or anyone, would easily be able to just drive off with a bus. Brief sequences of animation, as McCollum compares himself to Superman, fall flat and have an edge of unintentional mockery.

But any failings that Off the Rails has falls flat in light of the sorrowful and slightly hopeless story. The film sheds a clear light on the failings of the justice system in the United States, the way in which people are labeled criminals, and the needs for mental health support and therapy. By focusing on a unique story, the film manages to open up a narrative of injustice that spreads far wider than Darius McCollum. If the system has failed him, it has failed thousands of others like him.  We see a justice system that doesn’t seem to want to rehabilitate or help prisoners, but to lock them up, throwing away their lives because they do not fit into prescribed social order. Darius McCollum has been wronged, and the justice system doesn’t seem to care.

Off the Rails is streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.