The Witch (2016): Turning Hansel and Gretel On Its Head (Review)

Anya Taylor Joy as Thomasin

Several things stand out in The Witch. Right off the bat, there is that heavy Yorkshire accent combined with the “Olde English” phraseology. Granted there is not one “Eee by gum” to be heard but writer director Robert Eggers’ decision to have his protagonists come from “God’s Country” was a sly bit of irony considering the circumstances of the plot and the players in it.

Another is the emphasis on the bleakness of the setting.  The downright dourness of all the early settlers who faced a new world with God in their heart and a blunderbuss at their side. Pundits today who work overtime to take the humor from this modern day world would have fit right in. Eggers’ pilgrims have no sense of humor at all.

Of course the main theme here is the simplicity of the people who believed that God almighty was to be found everywhere if they only kept him in their heart. Eggers took this belief system and infused it with a twisted version of Hansel and Gretel, with a touch of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the witch is not vanquished at all.

Considering the dire reviews that some gave The Witch when it came out, it seems that that Yorkshire accent and all those thy’s and thee’s and come hither’s may have put American audiences off. But “by ‘eck that were how they talked” back then.

(Thick Yorkshire accents are best understood by those who come from “God’s Country.” The rest of the human race have to really work at picking out about half of what is said.)

The film does offer something else in spades though; above and beyond the woodcutter link to a Grimm’s Fairy Tale or two.

The Witch has atmosphere and a sense of foreboding so powerful it practically leaps off the screen.  Watching the film is an exercise in tension. There is also  a feeling that Eggers may well be telling his version of Job in the new world. (One of the characters actually references that particular parable.)

The moment the family are banished from the “plantation” we know this is going to end badly for William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their family. Sure enough, not long after relocating Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is out playing peek-a-boo with the youngest family member when the baby boy is stolen between glances. 

Eggers throws a lot into the mix. He includes the hysteria from the Salem Witch Trials and the two smallest children of the family, after the theft of the baby, sound nothing like their parents or older siblings. The duo are thick as thieves and sound years older than they actually are.

The youngest children, after the baby is stolen, are damned creepy and disturbing.

The two  throw fits and mimic the gyrations of the young girls who were responsible for so many being punished for witchery in Massachusetts. This adds to the suspense and overall sense of foreboding that rules the film.

(There is a bit where a hand flies up to cradle young Caleb’s head, played brilliantly by Harvey Scrimshaw, and the very sight of the hand is enough to make the keyed up viewer gasp and jerk away from the screen.)

Most agree that Anya Taylor-Joy nails it in this film. Clearly this young actress is one to watch and she will be the next big thing in the acting world for a long time to come.

However, this was not a one person show. All the actors knocked it out of the park. Ineson with that deep resonant Yorkshire voice of authority, Dickie ringing the changes on her emotional toil and inner strength, Scrimshaw and his change after that meeting in the woods and the youngest actors: Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson were just brilliant.

Anyone watching this film may never want to go near a black goat again…ever. (Black Phillip was damned creepy full stop.) It may also go a long way toward explaining just how well the mixture of religious fervor and old fashioned superstition combined to create such an atmosphere of sheer dread.

It is interesting to note that one of the plot devices entailed Katherine rounding on Thomasin and making the girl’s life a misery. Since she has “come into womanhood” the mother insists that it is time for the child to leave.

This appears to be an British cultural issue and is even alluded to, in jest, in the John Ford film The Quiet Man. In the 1952 film, the conspiracy against Squire Danaher is that two grown women cannot live under the same roof. (It holds true to this day as this writer can firmly attest.)

The Witch may not be the scariest film made in 2015, it had some pretty decent competition, it is, however,  undoubtably the most unsettling and atmospheric horror film of the year.

Cinematographer Jarin Blashchke does a brilliant job in terms of lighting and each frame is nigh on perfect.  The sound is spot on while the sets and  the costumes feel authentic  right down to the smallest detail.

Fans appeared to be split in their reactions to the film. Most seeming to want or expect jump scares every two seconds. There are, at least a couple of these popcorn hurling moments in The Witch and they are far enough apart that each come as a surprise.

For those who appreciate a nuanced horror film that takes its time to set up the finale, The Witch is a 4.5 star film. It loses a half star for that, at times, impenetrable Yorkshire accent.

The film  is on Amazon Prime at the moment as well as other streaming and On-Demand platforms and available on DVD. Fans of horror films will want to check it out if they have not already. It is worth watching.

BattleBots Redux on ABC Just Glossy UK Robot Wars but Still Fun

Still photo from BattleBots of Warhead
In 1998 the UK aired the first gladiatorial contest between robots with Robot Wars, shortly after; two years after, BattleBots, the American version hit TV screens across the pond. Now ABC is offering this redux of a fan favorite from the US which is really just the UK Robot Wars with American hype, gloss and more than a touch of glamor but still good fun. In both shows the names of the fighting machines are, perhaps, the best part of the show.

Nightmare, Warrior Clan, Plan X, Razorback, Wrecks and Bite Force are just some of the names that viewers will come across. A blend of new challengers, such as the Brit team and their bot Warhead, facing old favorites like Bite Force. The one annoying thing about the American version of the show is the tendency to declare that the US did this first, “Beginning in San Francisco…” may be true but the first TV show started in England with much less of that glossy finish that overshadows BattleBots.

Robot Wars was filmed in what felt like an old warehouse somewhere with seats brought in and clear safety plexiglas sides set up so the cameras could see that action. One thing about the earlier Brit iteration of the show was that the UK hazards were much worse than the new ABC version’s. The deadliest trap in the arena in BattleBots must be the hammer and the screw feels a bit useless so far.

Not having seen the original US series, which ran from 2000 to 2002 and, according to a commenter on the IMDb message board, featured a Playboy model as presenter, perhaps the first time around the hazards were worse. One thing that has not changed are the contestants who all posture and preen as well as “talk trash” for the camera while showing off their creations.

Just like the old Robot Wars, entirely too much time is spent on hyping the battle. BattleBots tries to give the show a boxing ring atmosphere with an announcer who builds up the opponents with a blend of tired humor and a play on words that just wastes time. After a build up where the hosts explain that these new bots are better and more dangerous, there is a bit of disappointment when reality shows that these gladiator robots are not much different from the one’s featured in the British version aka Robot Wars.

One can be forgiven for believing that British ingenuity is a bit more advanced than the US in terms of robot design. Never mind that the two chaps from Bournemouth ended up having their bot, named Warhead, beaten in a humiliating display of predatory acumen by their US opponent. A simpler machine, and fan favorite, cleaned their collective clock in an impressive bout that shows what works best in BattleBots, or its predecessor Robot Wars; the bouts themselves.

Take away the expert, who is in reality just a sportsman who has been hired to provide color, and the gorgeous all-tanned female co-host and her male counterpart and the show is still infinitely entertaining. Robot geeks and nerds may love the hype and the glitzy glamor of the ABC BattleBots redux, but the bottomline is the cheering fans who get excited by a bit of robotic mayhem.

Gladiators who “kill” their opponents with showers of sparks instead of blood and where gears, cogs and pieces of bots are flung across the arena after being forcibly ripped off. A bloodless and almost G rated fight to the death that may survive a bit longer than the first 2000 version. BattleBots airs Sundays on ABC and can be seen later on Hulu.

Life in the Real Desert: Westerns and Old Movies

Town sign outside of Burger King
My life in the real desert thus far has consisted of much more than personal injury and the shock of having no television. It includes the reading of old western favorites and movies that remain in the collection. Split into blu-ray, NTSC, Region 0 and Pal, the DVDs are spread out between RV and 5th wheel. In terms of stimulation, the tales by Louis L’Amour are hard to beat. Each story a sort of male romance novel built around rugged and hard men who must either fight, solve a mystery or puzzle, or defeat a villain who has designs on the girl of the protagonist’s dreams.

It took me awhile to figure out that these adventure stories of the old west were, in fact, the male answer to Harlequin Romance. These gunfighters, gamblers, cowboys, miners, lawmen, soldiers and so on are all just men searching for something. In the books it is either home, land, destiny and/or a woman. Each hero is an individual who yearns to put down roots, eventually for some and sooner for others, and they are tired of being a lone traveller.

The best thing about the heroes in L’Amour’s books is that the partner they seek is not a helpless and timid female. These men want strong women who will be an equal partner in the relationship. In that sense the author, through his protagonists, was an early feminist supporter way before it became fashionable. Considering L’Amour wrote during the 1950s and 60s he was ahead of his time.

While hanging the title of feminist around the neck of this self-educated wandering man may feel awkward, it is worth remembering that L’Amour himself was a strong character. A man who struck out to explore the world and all it had to teach him in his early teens. There is little doubt that his own strength moved him to admire the trait in anyone else who possessed it and this is reflected in his writing.

Each of the many books written by the late author are “page-turners,” and impossible to put down until the tale is finished. Many of his stories have been made into films or, in the case of the Sackett sagas, made for TV programs starring Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck as two of the many brothers in the large clan.

Perhaps it is the location I’m in that makes the reading of these books seem a necessity. While L’Amour’s writing about the West took in all of the frontier, many of his characters crossed not only the plains but the deserts of the southwest. Some died from attacks by indigenous tribes of the region and others for lack of water in a dry and barren land. Still more were victims of a slow draw or died as the result of poor judgement.

The area where I live, like others that have been home in the US, feels like a land “out of time” and if one suddenly came across a calvary patrol, dusty, tired and sweat stained from their efforts it would not be surprising. The people who populate the country now are just as fiercely independent as the settlers, nesters, ranchers, cowboys and pioneers that L’Amour writes of in his stories. All that is missing, when one goes to town, is the sound of spurs jangling on a boarded sidewalk.

deserted house in the desert

Rather interestingly, out of all the films in my collection, Westerns have not been viewed very often. Possibly because most of the ones on hand were filmed in either Mexico (Durango) or some other “standard” setting favored by the studios, like Death Valley et al. Although that may not be the case at all.

It could well be that this part of the “old West” is new to me. From Hi Jolly’s grave to the infamous Yuma state (territorial) prison miles down the road, all the local history, from Tyson Wells stage stop to the army presence here in this part of the desert, is waiting patiently for me to discover it. It is all, except for Hi Jolly, new to me.

Once the dust has settled from my move, a lot of research into the area will be done. I have already read about the camel experiment and a short book about Arizona Rangers has provided a wealth of information about the times and, rather interestingly, about news coverage of events back then.

The small stage stop museum is only open part time and once my injuries clear up completely, I will be seeking information on the old way of living in the real desert. A lifestyle that is only remembered, it seems, in western books and movies.

14 April 2015

Storm at Lake Mead: Two Men Barely Escape Death

Storm at Lake Mead: Two Men Barely Escape Death

On July 8th, at 3:45 p.m. a sudden storm at Lake Mead featuring 70 mile per hour winds created five foot waves and swells that reached eight feet, amid almost a dozen emergency rescues, two men barely escaped death. National Park Service Rangers and other emergency crews responded to 70 distress calls and as a result conducted 11 rescues at the lake where the sudden thunderstorm caught everyone by surprise.

Read more at http://guardianlv.com/2014/07/storm-at-lake-mead-two-men-barely-escape-death/#vXPKkvvL2w4Cpi05.99

The Walking Dead: Us Ends With Terminus Looking Deadly

The Walking Dead: Us Ends With Terminus Looking Deadly

Last night’s episode of The Walking Dead finally allowed viewers a glimpse of the sanctuary of Terminus and in Us this end of the line destination looks deadly. Whether it’s the deserted look of the place, where the paint looks barely dry and the whole compound seems eerily like the Marie Celeste, or the solitary woman who greets the group. Granted there is this lone female who is there to welcome the first of the survivors to enter, but her calm acceptance of these potential new members to Terminus feels about a ersatz as powdered eggs.