The Witch: The Language of Horror
Any filmmaker worth his weight in gold understands that it is not only the acting, the lighting, framing, script, or design that make a scene work, but an amalgamation of all these elements working together to truly form the ever evolving language of film. The above still is from Robert Eggers The Witch, released in the winter of 2016. The film centers around a 17th century family driven from their puritanical community to live alone in the wild frontier. They find a picturesque clearing bordering a vast forest to call home, however, within that forest resides an evil force prepared to rip this family apart at its core.
Film Language and Its Elements
The above still is the closest thing to a master shot we’ll get in this scene and is the film’s fifth shot. By this this point we know that William, the man looming large in the frame, stands alongside his family to face a panel of judges. From the dialogue, we can surmise that William is defiant and unwilling to be judged by these men. This single shot, along with supporting shots immediately before and after are perfect examples of film language fluency. The best films, horror and non-horror alike, tell a compelling visual story, so let’s unwrap elements of this first scene to figure out what we are being told that is not expressly stated in the dialogue, or what is further fortified by what is.
First, notice the careful composition of the shot. Its use of converging lines and background/foreground subjects suggest a stiff and orderly community, but it is surprisingly unbalanced. Notice how the left of the frame, screen left, outweighs the right of the frame, screen right, and what an overbearing effect it has on the overall image. Stiff, orderly and overbearing are perfect adjectives to explain this community’s excessively dogmatic ideas that shape their narrow view of God. Also, notice how your eyes automatically land on William created by the composition of the shot and the angle at which we see our subjects. We know that William is being judged, but notice how small the judge is photographed at the center of the frame. Not only is the tiny judge out of the range of focus, he is lower than William in the frame. We are being told that William, in his righteousness, sees himself as better in the eyes of God than his accusers. Speaking of the eyes of God, at the top of the frame are two windows that look like a set of eyes watching over them all. This tells us that William believes that he can only be judged by God, not these false prophets as he calls them.
There is even more to uncover when you look deeper into the composition and framing. Notice how the judge in the middle is framed inside a V formed by the arms of William and his wife Katherine.
To some, V is a symbol of the sacred feminine, and calls to mind a famous conspiracy theory popularized by novelist Dan Brown in his book The DaVinci Code regarding the painting The Last Supper.
By placing the judge right in the middle of the V formed by William’s and Katherine’s arms, we are being told that not only is William’s family being judged, but women as a whole. To drive the The Last Supper theme home, we have this…
Again, this is not done by accident. Eggers is begging you to draw a comparison here.
According to the conspiracy theory, the person we see to the left of Jesus is not, in fact, John, as it has been explained, but Mary Magdalene. The shape made by both Mary Magdalene’s and Jesus’ arm form a V. To further explain the similarities let’s take a look at the shot immediately preceding the master shot.
Here we see William with his back turned to the camera. The three previous shots before this develop a pattern of flat, neutral shots of William and Katherine’s children that are very similar to this very shot, accept they are all facing the camera. This shot signifies that William has turned his back to the values and rules of the plantation. But notice his hair and the subtle yet effective top lighting. He clearly resembles Jesus Christ even though we have yet to see his face.
Three Preceding Shots
Finally, going back to our original master shot, let’s take a look at the lighting and what story it has to tell. It was mentioned earlier that the left of the frame has a slightly overwhelming quality to it – these are the men of the plantation, and to the left, the women. Notice how the men are shrouded in black, but the women are standing in the light. In conventional film language, it is probable that Eggers is trying to tell us that there is a darkness to the men in the plantation, or at the least, they are hiding something. On the opposite end, the women are more pure and have nothing, or less to hide. It’s also possible we are being shown that men are allowed secrecy, whereas women must always keep a purity to them and never stray from the light.
So in summation, By looking deeper into this one shot and its supporting images, we find out that William is a righteous man refusing to obey the rules set forth by men who are perverting the word of the lord. We find that this is a place of oppressive patriarchal rule, with no room for personal expression for men, and even less so for women. This sets the foundation for the rigid belief system this family takes with them into the unknown, and gives us plenty of information for us to get a good idea of who this family is before we witness their horrific ordeal.