By Angelica Chong, a Highlighter staff columnist
This is the second installment of Like Salt & Pepper, a new fortnightly column where I blab about two pieces of media that I feel go together well—like PB & J, Bert & Ernie, and salt & pepper. There is no method to the madness, just what my gut tells me. Today I will be writing about The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers, 2016, and Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer, 2014.
These are two films not made for lone midnight viewings. Without the typical accoutrements of horror films—there are no chainsaw murderers or screaming banshees here—and first-look reviewers that complained that the films were not scary enough, you might be justified in thinking that The Witch and Under the Skin are your typical arthouse “horror” films—all ominously shadowy cuts but no jumpstarted heart.
But what truly makes a horror film, well, horrifying? I would argue that it’s not cheap reveals or nefarious torture methods (just two of many horror flick tropes we’re all but immune to by now) but something subtler and more insidious. In the case of these two films, it’s a pervasive, creeping sense of dread. Without the conventional indicators of horror, the audience only finds out how damn scary what they’re watching is when they’re already in too deep. What’s interesting in both these films is how horror is depicted through the lens of a specifically female evil. In The Witch, a Puritan family’s oldest daughter, Thomasin, is accused of practicing witchcraft and damning her entire family when strange things keep happening to them; in Under the Skin, an alien takes the form of a nameless woman and lures men to their deaths.
The Witch is subtitled as “a New England folktale”, and the specificity of its mythology is essential to understanding the film. It draws on the superstition of the people in the era to create a world where fear is often made literal through the possession of flesh and blood, something that is not easy for modern audiences to relate to. In the film, a devout family moves into a tiny dwelling on the edge of a dark wood. Kicked out of their village for holding views that were too puritanically radical, they seek to eke out living in “the kingdom of God.” The strange portents that plague the family—blankly staring rabbits, disappearing babies, a particularly menacing black goat—are, on their own, empty motifs and meaningless oddities.
However, when paired with the fervent zealotry of William, the father, and the anxiously observed morality they live under, these events become fraught with meaning. Teasing accusations from the twins that Thomasin is a witch sharpen the suspicions of their mother, even though this would be ludicrous to us today. A scene right after the baby’s disappearance shows a withered wildling woman bent over a fire, her hand trailing over the baby’s stomach. In the next shot, she is eating something disturbingly red and wet. The film suggests connections in a way that makes irrelevant their truth; all that matters is that the characters, and the audience, believes. When there is belief, there is room for horror.
Likewise, Under the Skin is a film that hints at but never really reveals, pardon the pun, what is under its skin. We never get told that Scarlett Johansson’s character is an alien, or what she’s doing on Earth, or who the mysterious motorcycle rider is. The film ends with her would-be rapist dousing her inky black body, its human skin newly shed, with oil and setting her aflame. There are no explanations and, unlike The Witch, almost no filmic mythos with which to ground our understanding. Yet the alien dances a dance we are all too accustomed to. She is a modern siren, inviting men home only for them to walk to their own deaths, transfixed by her beauty. They die surreally gruesome deaths, submerged in an unknown liquid before bursting like overripe fruit. We don’t really feel bad for them; the alien is allowed an amorality that is refreshing (especially in contrast to the overbearing piousness of The Witch’s characters). Indeed, the film falters the most when it tries to humanize an obviously otherworldly character, like when she spares a potential victim just because he is disfigured and a virgin. When the alien character grows a conscience (or something that can be viewed as one by the audience), she becomes familiar, and the familiar is never horrifying.
In the end, while Under the Skin does not have the same level of self-possession as The Witch, both are equally intriguing films about the nature of the things that really scare us. They might not be the most obvious horror films, but for me at least it’s never been the bloodbaths and crazy clowns that have stuck. It’s the small things, like a black goat’s pointed gaze, or an empty skin-suit that can still blink, that send a shiver down my spine.