The 2016 horror film ‘The Witch’ tells a story of English settlers in 17th Century New England, who set up home by a dark forest and fall prey to the witch who lives in a tumbledown house in the trees. Whilst drawing heavily on the archetypes of traditional fairy tales, it imparts a sense of realism by using testimony and transcripts of actual witch trials. Neil Jordan’s film ‘Company of Wolves’, adapted from the Angela Carter story collection ‘The Bloody Chamber’ takes a very different path through the forest. Carter retold Grimm folk tales, in particular Red Riding Hood, refracted through a lens of gothic horror and Freudian sexual psychology.
Both films have female protagonists, adolescent girls stepping into the liminal space of the forest, a setting that serves as a metaphor for the hinterland of womanhood. In traditional fairy tale narratives, the female hero’s ultimate goal is marriage and wedded bliss, in the eminently practical, monetary and legally binding sense. From the late twentieth century onward however, the female fairytale hero has acquired a new layer of meaning. Instead of the social prize of matrimony, our hero’s journey into the woods is a rite of passage to sexual awareness and agency for their gender. In ‘The Company of Wolves’, Angela Carter codes female sexuality and gender identity deep into the story.
Since Ridley Scott cast Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in ‘Alien’ against the scripted gender, female heroes have gradually become something of a talisman in fantasy and horror cinema. But the results can vary wildly, particularly in the hands of male directors. Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, an eloquent and poetic fable of modern history, uses Ofelia, the orphaned daughter of a fascist officer in Franco’s Spain, as a metaphor for the destruction wrought by the Civil War. In the end however, her magical journey ends with her martyrdom, a sacrifice on the altar of a country’s tragic history. Elsewhere in the horror genre, the trope of ‘last woman standing’, where a woman becomes protagonist only by default after her fellow male characters are slaughtered, swings uneasily between cathartic suffering or voyeuristic torture. Where do ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’ plant their standard for female self-determination?
Whilst both films share a route through the dark woods of Europe, the hard life lived there and the folk tales they created, their aims and realisation are very different. ‘The Company of Wolves’ is an episodic dream narrative, loaded with Freudian imagery and allegory, told within the sleeping mind of an adolescent girl. Surrounded by the likes of ‘The Shooting Party’ and ‘A Passage To India’, at the time of its release, ‘The Company of Wolves’ was an atypical, decidedly un-British, British Film. A layered, novelistic piece of work, it starts in the waking world but rapidly enters the dream of Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), then descends further through nested narrative frames of cautionary tales told to Rosaleen by her Granny, (Angela Lansbury).
‘The Witch’ by contrast appears a quite straightforward if tragic hero’s journey, played out in the unforgiving wilderness of 17th Century New England. At first this film seems to employ a deeply traditional, in fact revisionist reading of witchcraft folklore. There’s no mention of persecuted ’wise women’, just cackling hags grinding up baby bones or a dangerously erotic enchantress seducing children with poisoned apples. Technically the story takes place in America, but it’s still an unformed state. Commendably, not a single recognisable American accent is to be heard. The family cast out from the colony at the start of the film sound like they’re from somewhere in Yorkshire. The characters speak in Jacobean English, ornate and restricting. The language shapes how thought is expressed. The dark border of forest beside which they set up house is a mirror reflecting back their own private flaws and unconscious drives. The untamed green desert, full of an irrational natural power, appears as a challenge, a heathen state upon which to impose their faith. The forest in ‘Company of Wolves’ is both threatening and beautiful, fecund and dripping in fairy tale imagery and unreadable dream symbols. The landscape of ‘The Witch’ is far more austere. The drab meadow and claustrophobic trees produce little food and what does grow either rots or is poison, i.e. the apple that does for poor Caleb.
The first sign of reality being almost as unreliable as in ‘Company of Wolves’ is that all the witches in this film are of white, European appearance. As the family leave the plantation, we briefly glimpse some native Americans entering the compound with game to trade. But other than that there is no interaction with the actual American people, or reference to it in the film. The implication is strong that the settlers and the outcast family have brought to the ‘New World’ the very evils they face. They aren’t in fact trying to ‘tame [this] wilderness’ as father William (Ralph Ineson) claims to son Caleb. They’re trying and failing to overcome their own fears, first projected out onto the wilderness, but then onto each other.
Caleb, like eldest daughter Thomasin, is travelling toward adulthood and sexuality, stealing glances at his elder sister’s developing body. Early on there’s a brief moment of happy physical play between them that breaks this tension and threatens to rip away the taboos that their puritan culture places between them, allowing them to see each other sexually. But it’s broken up by youngest daughter Mercy, playing at being ‘the witch of the woods’. That’s when the trouble really starts. Already burdened with guilt at the disappearance of baby Sam, snatched in a blink of an eye by the titular Witch, Thomasin’s inability to control Mercy goads her to scare her sibling that she is a witch herself. Both elder siblings’ adolescent drives are squashed down: Caleb’s erupt later in the form of the carnivorously sexual Witch he meets in the woods, while Thomasin has much further to travel before this repression has its eventual and inevitably devastating effect.
The whole family is at war not just with the physical hardship of survival, but their fears and guilt. Early on during prayer, Thomasin confesses that she has broken every one of the commandments in one day. Perhaps a little teenage hyperbole is going on here: it may be she only wishes she’d murdered her unruly siblings. In light of what happens later, you’d think she’d get a pass for that one. On a hunting trip to the woods Caleb dutifully recites the details of his ‘base and corrupt nature’ to dad William. His rote-learned self-immolation is rewarded with the cold comfort that only God can decide whether the unbaptised baby Sam will burn in hell through no fault of his own. William has his own moment of confession after Caleb dies, but it’s too little too late.
In a sense, they’re doomed not just from the moment they leave the shelter of the plantation – expelled for some unspecified offence against the authority of the church – but probably since before they landed in New England. The scarcity and hazard of the wilderness exposes how little forbearance they actually possess and it’s undermined still further by their belief in their irretrievable sinful state. The wilds of New England is definitely Eden after the Fall. No amount of delving and spanning will save them. Though they suffer at the hands of black magic, it could be said that it’s God himself who is the ‘big bad’ in ‘The Witch’, as each character’s flaws and sins are comprehensively punished. Of course this backs Thomasin into a corner from which only an Epicurean Satan can seem to offer an escape.
This may just be my own personal reaction to horror films, but does anyone else experience a sneaking disappointment when ‘good’ triumphs in the end? So implacable and strong for most of the film, in the final act the forces of evil are inevitably – and sometimes implausibly – defeated by the powers of light. However, ‘The Witch’ gets the ending it deserves and protagonist Thomasin is revealed to be the film’s eponymous enchantress, fulfilling Mercy’s accusations, the family’s suspicions and Thomasin’s own spiteful baiting. Deprived of everything but her life, she sees no option but to ‘live deliciously’ with the aid of Lucifer, rather than face the carnage and privations of a Christian life in the New World.
‘The Witch’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’ are separated by more than thirty years, and their realisation is defined by the filmmaking eras from which they were born. ‘The Company of Wolves’ was released in the wake of developments in mechanical visual effects, dubbed ‘animatronics’. Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and later Stan Winston pioneered prosthetic techniques to render new, realistic portrayals of physical transformation and ‘creature’ effects. Chris Tucker brought these techniques to bear on the lower budget ambitions of Neil Jordan’s film, particularly in the scene of Stephen Rea flaying himself alive to emerge as a wolf. The techniques are a good fit for the fluid dream logic the film employs. Although ‘The Witch’ was made in the gold-rush era of CGI mirages, it sits more naturally in the wake of suggested horror that was provoked by both ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Ringu’. There’s quite a wait for any gore, and the real horror is in the disintegration of the family and its sanity. That said, Eggers’ direction at time betrays some insecurity, laying on strident eery incidental music to reassure the genre-attuned audience that bad things will follow at some point.
It’s only minutes into ‘The Company of Wolves’ before we dive into Rosaleen’s first rather vengeful dream of wolves dispatching her older, sexually mature sister. Rosaleen’s first lesson in her dream world is that sex equals death. Still very much a child, she chews on a gingerbread man as a coffin lid is nailed shut over her sister. But sister is pale and beautiful in death, clad in virginal white, with no sign of the physical ravaging that a pack of wolves would have dealt out. This is a different sort of death. It’s notable that in ‘The Company of Wolves’ it’s a mature woman who is taken, not an ‘innocent’ baby as in ‘The Witch’. The threat in ‘The Witch’ is signalled as perverse and transgressive, but in Angela Carter’s hungry and overripe forest it feels part of the natural order. After hearing Granny’s tale of the ‘travelling man’ who tore off his skin to be a wolf, Rosaleen’s mother reassures her, that ‘if there is a beast in man, it meets its match in women’.
Rosaleen’s family shown at the start of the film are clearly well off; all tweed, polo neck sweaters and a Range Rover. Pulling up to a large country house, the family’s pet Alsatian pursues them up the gravel drive. Inside Rosaleen’s dream it’s a life of foraging, mining and hunting with flintlock rifles. The dream takes Rosaleen out of her comfortable existence, back in time to a place where life and death had equal value and the fight was about which triumphed. Under the pedagogy of Granny, Rosaleen tests the waters of womanhood, flirting with – or being flirted with by – a spotty village oik. Blissfully ignorant at first (‘Didn’t you like that?’ weedles said oik after planting a kiss: ‘No’, says Rosaleen, wiping her mouth), Rosaleen only starts to learn when she ignores Granny’s dire warnings and steps off the straight and narrow forest path, to come up against the predatory huntsman (Micha Bergese). The tone is humorous and horrific by turns. The fierce body horror of Stephen Rea ripping off his own skin to reveal the jealous wolf beneath rebounds off bawdy jokes and knockabout physical comedy that’s an ocean away from ‘The Witch’ and its dour Puritan suffering.
The climax of ‘The Company of Wolves’ is a sweeping poetic dream metaphor for oncoming sexual knowledge. Echoing the approach of her friendly pet at the top of the film, the pack of wolves presumed to have killed Rosaleen’s sister in her first dream now return. They hurtle out of the woods, into the house and up the stairs to Rosaleen’s bedroom. The score swells with a crescendo of dissonant horror film strings as one wolf leaps through the bedroom window, smashing the glass. What shifts this image from standard horror jeopardy into something stranger and more suggestive is that it is shot at very high-speed, resulting in a slow motion invasion. Crucially it’s rather too slow to function as the sort of directorial flourish meant to increase audience reaction. The image of the leaping wolf is robbed of its inherent violence, allowing it to be filled with a more ambivalent meaning. Rosaleen ‘wakes’ in her bedroom, panting in fear as she hears the wolves climbing the stairs, then repeatedly screaming as the wolf breaks down the window. But her normal speed fear vs the ultra slow motion ‘attack’ of the wolf suggests that it’s not the wolf she’s afraid of. Her screams become insistent, almost rhythmic, then the camera cuts away to show the totems of girlhood tumbling and smashing on the floor, along with the shattered barrier of the window. Instead of being cut off by the bite of a wolf’s teeth, Rosaleen’s screams die away into what’s almost a sigh. Rather than a ‘money shot’ moment of gore to top the film. Neil Jordan ends with a little death. It’s a call back to when her sister is hunted by the wolves, but when caught, she falls in a swoon and the pack runs over and around her prone body. It’s up to the next shot of her laid in her coffin to tell us what wolves do to women. That lacuna is the void of carnal knowledge that will be filled by Rosaleen’s dreams.
In ‘The Witch’ the family’s Christian faith forces Thomasin to view her growing sexuality as inherent sin. This becomes the leverage that Lucifer uses to disprove the supposed benefits of a virtuous life and corner Thomasin into signing her Faustian pact. Walking sky-clad into the woods to meet the coven, Thomasin abandons herself to the joys of sin. Laughing in disbelief and desolation, she levitates with the other witches into the dark canopy of the forest. Lit by the flames of a Sabbat bonfire, Thomasin ends up in a pose that appears to suggest the Crucifixion. In contrast to ‘The Company of Wolves’ it’s an unambiguous negative ending. Rosaleen’s dream is terrifying but ultimately liberating. She can wake from it and take her new female wisdom into adult life. However, Thomasin is already awake and the delusions and restrictions of her faith have been successfully projected onto the wilderness her family fail to master. Being born female, the film suggests, is a curse that she’ll never be rid of, so there seems no option left but to embrace the self-fulfilling prophecy of her ‘corrupt nature’.
The film was released before Donald Trump took the presidency of the USA, but it seems informed by the resurgence of right-wing politics and in particular, the battle over gender and reproductive rights. Thomasin in ‘The Witch’ is a woman cursed by her gender, trapped into a life of ‘evil’ because of the religious culture that surrounds her forbids her from living fully as a woman. By contrast Rosaleen reaches the end of her nightmare intact and entirely herself, not merely a survivor, but ready for another hero’s journey in the waking world.