Fear, Paranoia and ‘The Witch’

The most impressive thing a horror movie can do for me is to involve me personally, as a viewer. To bring me into the story, to get under my skin and immerse me so deeply that I am the unseen character, the watching camera who is just as threatened as all of the characters, is a terrifying and impressive experience in equal measure. Remind yourself of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982): the audience is invited to become the detective, to work out who the monster is posing as, for their own safety as well as for the characters too. Audience participation is something which most horror movies don’t even attempt, let alone actually execute, so when a film does it as perfectly and as maliciously as Robert Eggers’ The Witch does, you have to sit up and take notice. Not only is it a meticulously crafted example of psychological horror, it is also an absolutely brilliant, textbook example of audience participation in the genre.

The Witch is a film without a Witch in it. The story follows a 17th century Puritan family, who have been cast out of their community and are attempting to set up a farm when their youngest son mysteriously vanishes.  The father claims it was a hungry wolf, the wife believes God has punished them, and yet their youngest twins seem to know what the audience has been shown: that the baby was stolen and killed by a witch. Soon, more family members disappear and fingers start getting pointed at Thomasin, the eldest daughter, in fear that she is the dreaded Witch. The family has spiralled out of control in desperation and paranoia, but what of the audience? The setting of The Witch is crucial to this discussion: this 17th century, deeply religious family have no means to deal with grief, and their paranoid ideas about sin and judgement take over when they are confronted with a loss in the family. Eggers immerses the audience in these fears; he shoots every frame and every moment as if it were directly from the eyes of a member of the family, with confusion and fear seeping into every shot.

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Can we trust what the director shows us? Animals are framed as if they are the devil’s accomplices; an immobile rabbit keeps reappearing in the woods, while Black Philip, the new family goat, seems to have a strange relationship with the young twins of the family. Eggers frames them as if they were strange and unnatural, and the audience is not given a minute to doubt whether or not they are actually evil. Without knowing it, the audience has been immerses and transported into the setting of the movie, and has also taken on the myths and paranoia that the family hold. We, the viewer, are shown the monster very early on, in the flesh, and we therefore explicitly believe what the filmmaker has shown us. It is easy then for the director to make us believe other things through suggestion, and even make us doubt the main character of the film, and whether or not we can trust her innocence. The audience has become the scared and paranoid seventh member of the family; hiding in the corner, pointing fingers and latching on to impossible truths, just like the rest of the group. We believe the children when they say that Black Philip has talked to them. We believe the mother when she exclaims that their young son, Caleb, has been possessed through witchcraft. Most of all, we believe Robert Eggers when he tells us that Witches are real.

 

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The Witch is a masterful example of audience participation. The viewer is projected into a world where grief is bestowed upon you as a punishment, your eldest daughter could be a witch, and your black goat could be Satan in disguise. The key to the true terror of The Witch is that we believe these fears completely and utterly, that we indulge in this paranoia and join the family in collapsing into the terror and confusion. Robert Eggers manages to pull off an amazing trick; he gets you to believe in the devil without you even realising.

The Advantages of Being Imaginary: My Love Affair with The Purple Rose of Cairo

I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?”

It is very hard for me to try to express how truly special I believe The Purple Rose of Cairo to be. Woody Allen’s thirteenth film as a director is one which the famously self-criticising filmmaker regards to be one of his finest works, and it is easy for me to see why. Now, whenever I am questioning my own desire to study cinema, or worrying about the potentially harmful effects of living your life purely in a form of escapism, I think of The Purple Rose of Cairo. For me, it perfectly encapsulates the joy of cinema but also the danger of escaping into another world; it’s funny, heartwarming but also incredibly bittersweet and sad, defining my love affair with cinema in a way that no other film can or could.

Allen’s cinematic fantasy revolves around Cecillia, played by Mia Farrow, who is locked into an abusive marriage and an unhappy job as a waitress, around the time of the Great Depression in 1935. To escape from her problems (and her husband) she goes to the cinema, where the handsome hero of the film jumps down into the real world to be with her and only her. Soon she is caught in a strange, fantastical love triangle, where she has to choose between the fictitious handsome character of the film, or his real-life double, the actor who plays him. Allen is presenting a cinephile with an impossible choice; jump into the imaginary, but wonderful world of the cinema with a dashing hero, or choose reality, and all the perils and uncertainties that come with the modern-world. Understandably, and sensibly, Cecillia chooses reality.

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But he abandons her.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is so full of joy in so many areas; it’s bursting with heartwarming moments and brilliant jokes, which is typical of early Woody Allen. However, just like in other Woody Allen classics (Manhattan in particular), the wit and the joy are punctured by a moment of pure grief. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, the audience is tricked, just like Cecilia, into accepting the reality presented by the film; it makes no sense for Gil Shepard, the actor, to fall head over heels for Cecilia after only briefly meeting her, and the revelation that he was using her the entire time should come as no surprise to her nor the audience. Yet, it is still utterly devastating. Allen, in submerging the audience in such cinematic treats throughout the movie, and delivering such a consistently funny script, tricks the viewer into expecting a typical Hollywood happy ending. Instead, Cecilia, who is now homeless, jobless and heartbroken, does the only thing she knows will bring her joy; going back to the cinema.

It’s in its ending that The Purple Rose of Cairo really makes me think about my own relationship with the big screen and the wider world of cinema. Some find solace in this ending; at her lowest moment, Cecilia seems to find hope and joy in the beauty of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing ‘cheek-to-cheek’ in the iconic Top Hat. Even when everything has fallen apart in her life, cinema is there to pick Cecelia back up and give her laughter and wonder. This interpretation of the ending appeals to me personally; there have been points, as I’m sure there have been for every type of cinephile, where cinema has saved them in a particularly bad moment. Cinema has undoubtedly saved a lot of people, me and Cecilia included, and so maybe this final shot is a celebration of the power of cinema, and how it can help those in need escape from their lives for just a few fantastic hours.

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However, I think the more likely mood that Allen wished to convey is one of sadness, one of pain and desperation, and this is where the other aspect of my passion for cinema establishes itself. Is it healthy to immerse yourself in fiction so deeply? For every moment I love studying and learning about cinema, doubts always manage to creep in as to whether it’s a healthy thing to devote your life too. The ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo is absolutely extraordinary to me, in that it both perfectly conveys my love for cinema and escapism, and also the fear and doubts I have about immersing myself too deeply. The Purple Rose of Cairo fully defines my love for cinema, and even the doubts I have about my own passions. It is such a subtly intelligent movie; it has so many brilliant and accessible jokes, but also the potential and quality to truly make you think about your own relationship with cinema and the reasons why you even watch movies in the first place. What more could you ask for from a movie?

The Unique Aesthetic of Alien 3

Firstly : this is not a defence of Alien 3

I’m not going to discuss the commendations and criticisms of David Fincher’s often maligned third instalment of the Alien franchise. I could easily write about the amazing opening, compared to the extraordinarily awful ending. There are debates to be had over the different versions of the film and the varying differences between the two, for good or for bad. You can talk about the early (and now fan favourite) script of the film written by Vincent Ward, or a basic discussion as whether it was fair for Fincher to actually disown and discredit his involvement in the film entirely. The question has been asked for a while now; is Alien 3 actually any good?

I’m not going to answer that question. 

The major, underlying interest I have with Alien 3 is that it has absolutely no respect or reverence for the films that have preceded it. David Fincher, even with studio interference, managed to create a film that now stands out entirely as a singular point of intrigue, which is extremely impressive for a film that was the third of an already successful franchise. Fans like to discuss (and bemoan) the narrative decision to kill off Ripley’s fellow survivors from Aliens, including the ten-year old girl Newt, who was at the emotional centre of the second film in the franchise. This is often seen as a misjudged narrative decision and many find it disrespectful towards Cameron’s film, but it highlights a crucial point, which is that Alien 3 is not concerned with being part of the franchise and is instead desperate to establish itself as its own beast. It doesn’t want be shackled down with the characters of a previous movie, so what does it do? It kills them immediately. Harsh, but understandable. However, after ditching Vincent Ward’s ambitious script, Alien 3 had a troubled writing process and actually ended up proving to be slightly generic in its narrative; Ripley crash lands on a ship populated by prison-inmates, the Alien kills people, Ripley has to save the day on her own. This follows the same narrative beats as pretty much every other Alien film, and will probably be copied for the inevitable modern sequel too. To leave his own mark on the film, Fincher clearly decided to create a completely new visual aesthetic for Alien 3, and it is in this creative decision where this third instalment truly stands itself out from the rest of the franchise.

To cut a long story short, Alien 3 looks absolutely amazing. Fincher, in his rejection to conform to a simple sequel, completely changed the aesthetic, the setting and the colour palette of the Alien franchise, to the point where you can scarcely believe its an Alien film. Both Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens are beautiful films, with their dark colours being illuminated by bright, but often brief, moments of light. The visual sense of Alien is often darkness, where the cinematography showcases the flashing interior lights and mechanics of the future world that the viewer is spectating. These films are clearly science-fiction; the audience is aware of the concepts of a spaceship and an alien in their most basic forms, but these films created a new aesthetic, a completely new version of the future. The interiors and designs of these environments in Alien and Aliens are completely new and completely unique.

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Alien (1979) had a perfect aesthetic: dimly lit, narrow hallways that created the monstrous tension of the films final chase scenes.

What is important though, is that these two movies aren’t unique when compared to each other. Aliens is a completely different type of movie to Scott’s original; Alien is a slow, meticulous slasher film, whereas Cameron’s sequel increases the stakes and the enemies and turns into a military action-shooter. Cameron twisted the genre to his own vision, but he kept the same visual style, lifting Scott’s original vision right off the screen and placing it into his own reel. The shot below, from Aliens, features a new character, but the visual aesthetic is identical to Scott’s original. Cameron didn’t create a new vision with Aliens, he just refined (and some would say perfected) Ridley Scott’s original work.

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Aliens (1986) saw James Cameron pay respectful tribute to Ridley Scott’s original, perhaps at the cost of originality. 

Alien 3 refuses to even seriously acknowledge Scott and Cameron’s films. The dark hallways of Alien, with their shafts of light cutting through the air, are completely gone. Fincher re-imagined the aesthetic of the Alien franchise to be one that invoked ideas of Hell, of blood and suffering, and most important of all, fire; a place where Ripley was truly alone, and a place where those who died were cast straight down into hell. Fincher takes the concept of the station full of male prisoners, many of who are self-confessed murderers and rapists, as a literal metaphor for hell, and he showcases this through consistent and stunning visual lighting that evoke the punishment of the underworld. The darkness of the previous movies occasionally remains, but Alien 3 is a much brighter film, with an often orange/fiery tinge, that often shows you everything in plain sight. The film often has a sinister menace to its interiors; although there is nothing to leap out of the looming dark, there is nowhere to hide either. Ripley’s vulnerability is often shown by her being bathed in the bright light of fire; she not only has no dark corners to hide away in but also nobody to protect her either; she is alone in hell with the devil.

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Ripley has a consistent look in all the Alien films, apart from Fincher’s Alien 3. 

Whether you take issue with the narrative and pacing of Alien 3, which often lends itself to criticism in both versions of the film, it is hard to exaggerate how totally admirable Fincher’s visual stance is when tackling this series. Looking at other franchises, like The TerminatorStar WarsLord of the Rings, each individual film in each series is recognisably part of its shared universe. Each sequel builds on the previous instalment, both in story and in visual flair, with the vast majority of sequels sharing the previous films ideas and examples of visual style, in order to create a consistent universe. Even Alien: Resurrection, the film after Fincher’s Alien 3, decides to go back to basics and once again copy the same aesthetic that Ridley Scott introduced; the dark corridors of spaceships is reproduced to the point where it loses all sense of true identity, of true worth. I won’t make any true judgements as to the true, cinematic quality of Alien 3 (it’s a very long discussion to have), but I will say that it is a far more interesting and engaging film when compared to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Resurrection. The fourth in the series combines dull visuals and a conventionally silly narrative, which is baffling considering that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (or simply Amélie), excels in both of those aspects. You may think that neither are particularly good movies, but at least Alien 3 really tried to do something different, to add something into the franchise’s universe. In doing that, it has now taken on a life of its own, away from the franchise.

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There is so much light in Alien 3; the creature and the victims are often in plain sight, and the terror comes from what you can see rather then what you can’t.

 

There is always something to be said for a film that strives to be totally different from those around it, especially when already part of a successful franchise. Alien 3 deserves to be remembered as its own, bizarre project, which suffered at the hands of the studio who made it and from the criticisms of fans, who (understandably) couldn’t accept it as a sequel to its two beloved predecessors. However, I can’t help but truly admire the film for its boldness and brashness; its unwillingness to conform to the films that preceded it and a determination to stand out from the crowd. It may not be the best Alien film, but I definitely think it’s the most interesting; while the other films have a cold reality to their style, Alien 3 plays out like a fiery, beautiful nightmare.