Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feminists Go to the Movies, part 4: The Hour of the Witch's Baby

Ingmar Bergman's devilish Hour of the Wolf (1968) has received attention of late for its connection to two films, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Witch (2015).  The film is a nice complement to both of its better-known coven cousins.

Hour of the Wolf is described by Wikipedia as a "surrealist–psychological horror–drama."  This is also the way that critics often describe Rosemary's Baby.  The films do in fact have many similarities.  It is no wonder that, in March, Close-Up Cinema exhibited Rosemary's Baby and Hour of the Wolf together as a double bill in London.


Let us begin with the plot of Hour of the Wolf.  An unhappy artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) move to a new home on a small desolate island.  Johan hopes that the serenity of the island will allow him to overcome his torments (from an unspecified trauma) and recover from exhaustion.

This is similar to the plot of Rosemary's Baby.  Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, is an unhappy artist who moves into a new home with his soon-to-be pregnant wife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow).  But Guy's unhappiness has to do with his ambitions for fame and fortune.  Johan is already famous and he hates being an artist.  He believes that his talent as a painter is a disease or a perversion.  He says, "I call myself an artist for lack of a better name.  In my creative work is nothing implicit except compulsion.  Through no fault of mine I’ve been pointed out as something extraordinary, a calf with five legs, a monster."  Johan is a humble, sensitive and reluctant artist.  Guy is a vain, ruthless and ambitious artist.

The Borgs meet their strange and creepy neighbors, Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson) and his wife Corinne (Gertrude Fridh).  The baron and his wife act very sociable, inviting the couple to a dinner party at their castle, but Alma can see that the baron and his wife are trying to come between her and Johan for a sinister purpose.  She tries desperately to draw her husband away from the von Merkens and their strange friends.  Gordon Thomas of Bright Lights Film Journal described these new acquaintances as possibly "a cadre of vampires, a coven of witches, a passel of ghosts, or all three at once."

Except for the castle, this is exactly the plot of Rosemary's Baby.

Ruth Gordon is a diabolical neighbor in Rosemary's Baby (1968).
One of Johan's dark secrets is that he cannot commit himself fully to his pregnant wife because he still has an all-consuming passion for an old girlfriend, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin).  Alma browses through Johan's diary.  It reads, "My obsession with Veronica became a torment to us both.  I followed her around, spying, in jealousy.  My suffering was stimulating for her, I think, but she was passive and indecisive.  There were some frightening scenes, without sense or reason. . . We certainly lived by the word of the Bible: Of man and woman as one flesh."

One of the baron's associates, Lindhorst (Georg Rydeberg), comes to the Borg's cottage to invite the couple to another dinner party.  He tells Johan, "One of the invited will interest you.  Veronica Vogler.  She is coming.  Are you?"

This is a gun that Jonah will later use to shoot Alma.  Alma has been saying that these people want her out of the way so that they can get to Jonah.  Lindhorst, who oozes malevolence, seems to understand that he is endangering Alma by putting a gun into the hands of her unstable husband. 

Johan steps into a chamber of Hell when he returns to the van Merkens castle.  Jeff Stafford, a contributor to the TCM website, wrote, "In the end, Hour of the Wolf is a gothic and disturbing meditation that is often impenetrable in its meaning though a good deal of the film works solely on the power of its imagery - a man who suddenly walks up the wall and onto the ceiling, an old crone who removes her eyes, places them in water glasses and then tears off her face, a young, half-naked boy who attacks Johan while he is fishing and is beaten to death and tossed in the sea where his corpse hovers like a ghost just beneath the surface."

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote ". . . if we allow the images to slip past the gates of logic and enter the deeper levels of our mind, and if we accept Bergman's horror story instead of questioning it, Hour of the Wolf works magnificently.  So delicate is the wire it walks, however, that the least hostility from the audience can push it across into melodrama.  But it isn't that.  If you go to see it, see it on Bergman's terms."

Now, let me address the film's similarities to The Witch.  Matt Patches of Grantland noted after an interview with The Witch's director Robert Eggers, "His filmmaking heroes are icons: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and Ingmar Bergman, a name he repeats six times out of pure excitement."  Eggers said in another interview, "I talk about Bergman a hell of a lot.  I just think he’s the best.  Every frame is filled with such compassion for his characters that you just feel it. . . Bergman really wants to look at the dark side of humanity instead of shining a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling."  Eggers proclaimed more succinctly in yet another interview, "I just love Bergman so much.  I just love him."  Eggers said that Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) was a "big influence," but he was clear that this was not the only Bergman film to have an impact on The Witch.  Another Bergman film that he cited was Hour of the Wolf.

We have our protagonists in both films relocating to a remote location surrounded by dark woods.  Like the family in The Witch, the couple in Hour of the Wolf lives in a cottage with a thatched roof.

Hour of the Wolf


The Witch


Hour of the Wolf

The Witch

We see many incidents in The Witch that are also present in Hour of the Wolf.  A baby boy is smashed to a pulp in The Witch.  A young boy is smashed to death with a rock in Hour of the Wolf.  Johan is bloodied by a pecking black bird in Hour of the Wolf.  Katherine is bloodied by a pecking black bird in The Witch.


One scene in particular stands out to me.  A self-proclaimed hag acts on two separate occasions to kiss Johan.  Both times, she aggressively snatches onto Johan with a claw-like hand and puts her lips on his mouth as if she is trying to devour him.  The first time, she comes up behind Johan, grabs him around the shoulder, and forces him to turn towards her.


She is direct in her approach the second time.


As these images show, the witch who brings about Caleb's demise also snatches Caleb with a claw-like hand and also subjects the young boy to a devouring kiss.


Another woman who looks even more like a witch reveals that she is wearing a false face.

The witch who seduces Caleb also wears a false face.  Witches in many other films wear false faces. 

I just saw this trope used in an episode of Game of Thrones ("The Red Woman," April 24, 2016).  It is revealed in the closing moments of the episode that Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light, relies on the supernatural powers of a ruby necklace to make herself appear young.

The coven draws Johan into their grasp with promises of sexual pleasure.  Afterwards, Alma finds Johan in the woods injured and exhausted much like Caleb was found by his family after his sexual encounter with the witch.

One distinct image shows up again and again in Cries and Whispers, Hour of the Wolf and The Witch.

Cries and Whispers


Hour of the Wolf


The Witch


The Witch shares with Hour of the Wolf its darkness and intensity.  Jordan Crucchiola of Wired wrote, "So, while he may not be the late great Bergman, Eggers certainly used emotional honesty and strict attention to detail to pull the skin off his characters and examine the raw flesh underneath."

Thomas provided an explanation for Hour of the Wolf that possibly provides a clue to the meaning of The Witch.  He wrote, "Bergman’s film seems to mock the narcissistic inner life of creative men while paying homage to the emotional wholesomeness of women — women like his erstwhile girlfriend, Ullmann.  Briefly stated: man in love with death; woman in love with life.  Liv constantly sees possibility and continuance, but Bergman is one of those death-haunted artists, like Mahler or Lowry, and that’s hell on partnerships.  But what can you do? I can hear Bergman say on one of his better days.  If the demons leave, maybe the angels will, too. . . ."

William, the Puritan father of The Witch, is haunted by the possibility that he will displease God and be condemned to an eternity in Hell.  He is, in his desire to be a perfect man of God, focused on his inner life.  His daughter, Thomasin, is drawn to earthly pleasures.  The Devil wins her devotion when he asks her, "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"

Johan and William are both obsessed men who have taken family to an isolated place to find freedom and solitude, but the isolation only makes the men more fixated on their neurotic thoughts and subjects their family to greater stress and danger.

Johan's obsession to see Veronica again is being exploited by his perverse new acquaintances, who are manipulating the troubled artist for the sole purpose of humiliating him.  They expect the man to suffer an emotional breakdown by forcing him to confront his repressed desires.  Frank Gado, the author of "The Passion of Ingmar Bergman," wrote, "[T]he demons take control of Johan and lead him to the tryst that seals his insanity." 

G. Clark Finfrock of Film Misery wrote, "The end of the film descends into a paranoid, Polanskiesque fantasia of the absurd.  I wouldn’t dream of ruining it for you, but it involves walking on the ceiling, a woman peeling her face off, and a bizarre public sex ritual.  If you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby or, more precisely, The Tenant, you’ll have an idea what to expect.  Does it really happen?  Is it all in Johan’s mind?"

The film's weird assortment of characters is not real.  For Johan, who is suffering great shame and guilt, the dinner party guests represent the demons of his mind.  Gado recognized that the demons were "shaped out of self-reproach."  Lindhorst, the guiding force of the demons, was, according to Gado, "the self-mocking consciousness, the artist's persecuting intellect."  Alma is so close to her husband and so immersed in his anxieties that she comes to share his apparitions.  She says in the film's final scene, "A woman who lives with a man for a long time, does she not end up like the man?  She loves him, attempts to think like him.  See like him.  It is said such things can change a person.  Is that why I started to see the other ones?"

Surreal films that trade in psychological horror are usually seen by critics as paranoid fantasies that, despite the appearance of ghosts and demons, have nothing at all to do with the supernatural.  Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique Online questioned if Satan really plays a role in Rosemary's Baby.  He wrote, "The film even emphasizes the weakness of the supernatural explanation in a scene wherein Rosemary seeks help from a doctor and babbles out a litany of her suspicions — which sound like crazy ramblings that add up to nothing."

It is conceivable that there is something other than a supernatural explanation to The Witch.  It may be that William's shame and guilt over his failure to sustain his family has caused his sin-crazed family to suffer mass hysteria about the diabolical forces in the woods.  Or there may even be a simpler explanation.  We just need to keep an open mind to identity another likely suspect in the mayhem.  Thomasin was the last person to be with the baby before he died.  She was the last person to be with Caleb before he was stricken ill.  She was the last person to be with the twins before they disappeared.  She was the only person to be with her father when he was gouged to death.  Was the mother right?  Did this repressed young woman slaughter her family Lizzie Borden-style?  Is that the real story of The Witch?  This may be the metaphor that was suggested by Tasha Robinson (See my previous article).  Eggers said, "It’s interesting to see, in a society that is trying to snuff out female power, how these kinds of weird explosions can happen."

Evidently, a horrifically evil witch with an explosive temper is a triumph of feminism.  The badder, the better.  Alexandra Heller-Nicholas of Overland wrote:
[S]creen culture moved increasingly towards a softening of the witch, peaking in the 1990s with the television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch and movies like The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996).  Mainstream postfeminism in the era of the Spice Girls broadly reconfigured grotesque, malevolent evil into something far sassier and lip-gloss wearing.

While this quirkification of the witch satisfied many feminist critics at the time – understood as a shift from a blanket notion monstrous-femininity to a more positive representation of 'grrrl power' branded agency – for me, at least, something important was lost.  I mourned for these vivacious teens their right to a less acceptable form of monstrosity, one that they could – if they so wished – be a more radical force to unleash their own gyno-rage however they damned well pleased.

When witches become palatable, they become controllable: I’d rather be a mad, dangerous, powerful crone than teen-screen friendly commercialised wank fodder, be it literally or – for the many feminist academics who went gaga for this mode of supposedly ‘progressive’ representation – something more symbolic.
The softening of the witch certainly occurred with films like Hocus Pocus (1993).

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus (1993)

The Devil's Bride, also released in 1968, involves yet another cult of Satanists tormenting an innocent, unsuspecting couple.  The high priest, Mocata (Charles Gray), seeks to initiate the couple into their coven so that he can summon his beloved Devil and deliver the young woman to him as a bride.

Charles Gray and Nike Arrighi in The Devil's Bride (1968)
The devil worshipers want only the woman in Rosemary's Baby and The Devil's Bride, but they seek only the man in Hour of the Wolf.  The question in The Witch is whether or not the coven's main objective all along was to recruit Thomasin.

Even more important are the films' various endings.  The ending of Rosemary's Baby celebrates motherhood, which is so powerful that it transcends the epic battle of Good versus Evil.  A mother must care for her baby even if that baby is the anti-Christ.  The Witch presents an emptier and less interesting message.  Unlike Rosemary's Baby, this film mocks and demeans motherhood.  At one point, the witch causes the mother Katherine to hallucinate that her missing baby has been returned to her.  Katherine attempts to breastfeed the baby, but we are shown the truth: the mother has brought a raven to her naked breast and the raven is using its lacerating beak to bloody and mutilate the breast.  This vicious trick on the part of the witch (and the filmmaker) is clearly designed as a violent mockery of motherhood.  The Witch ends with Thomasin rejecting home and family and taking Evil's side in its war against Good.

Hour of the Wolf has a sad ending, The Devil's Bride has a happy ending, and Rosemary's Baby has an ambiguous ending.  Jason S. Marsiglia of Diabolique Magazine wrote:
The stark contradiction between the worldviews of Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out [an alternate title] is tellingly expressed in both films' culminating dialog: Toward the end of Rosemary's Baby, Sidney Blackmer nihilistically proclaims, "God is dead!  Satan lives!"  Conversely, Devil ends with Christopher Lee’s stoic, hope-filled proclamation that "[God] is indeed the one we must thank."
The Witch has an ending so angry and nihilistic that it might even unnerve Satan.

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