The VVitch is a curious artefact. The stylization of its title comes from a Jacobean pamphlet on witchcraft, its costumes (designed by Linda Muir) are thoroughly researched from Stuart Peachey’s Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (2014) and its cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is intended to replicate the formal composition of paintings of the period. That much of the dialogue is lifted from writings and witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century lends a curiously dislocated tone to the whole affair: one which might connote the unsuitability of the European paradigm to the North American locale if not for the fact that the religious fervour turns out to be correct in every particular. Thus The VVitch‘s connection to the traditions of Fantastika – a body of literature that communicates its themes most resonantly when read literally and which seeks to interrogate the Politics of the Western world by comparison with exotic locales or buried truths – is both disrupted and enlivened by its almost-documentary devotion to historical accuracy: it may well have been at the point that the Western world stopped treating the idea of God as incontrovertible that Western discourse began to distinguish fact from the fantastic. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” as a William Shakespeare character says in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623).
As has been mentioned elsewhere [see We Don’t Go Back: A Personal Taxonomy of Folk Horror and Pagan Film #52: The Witch (2015) by Howard Ingham], the Psychology of the way the family reacts to the strain they are under is entirely credible; it is the attachment of a supernatural explanation to realist verisimilitude that makes The VVitch seem conflicted. Three Algonquin tribespeople are glimpsed at the beginning of The VVitch: America’s native population is neither seen nor heard from again. The VVitch, like Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899; rev 1925) is a text about the unconscious vastation of a belief system that reduced entire continents to Slavery and one half of its own population to the status of chattels:
We know what will happen the moment we hear about the “next generation” human embryos aboard the colony ship: a xenomorph will impregnate them. Here though, the marriage of the fine-honed excitement of the Monster-slaying story arcs of ancient Mythology to the richness of existential inferences from the initial run of films – that Evolution occurs along a little-understood plane of immanence, that Life on Other Worlds is likely to be at least as terrifying as life on this, that Aliens allegorize aspects of organic behaviour not yet fully-explained by Scientists, that the xenomorph represents something about species’ will to survive, much, indeed, as did the alien Shapeshifter from John Carpenter‘s remake of TheThing (1982), that there is, in short, something real and meaningful going on – is exchanged for a blood-spattered retelling of the European occupation of North America as the Colonization of Other Worlds:
Some say it started with space, others with the congruence of science and discourse, others still with the allegories of Rosicrucianism, but I consider this the best essay on the genesis of science fiction ever written:
“This film is a detective story,” intones the voice-over at the beginning of The Beast Must Die, “in which you are the detective. The question is not, who is the murderer but who is the werewolf? After all the clues have been shown you will get a chance to give your answer … Watch for the werewolf break.”
The alternate version released as Black Werewolf omitted the werewolf break, with little or no impact on either the plot or the strangely syncretic register of this Horror in SF, a movie that combines the set-up from Agatha Christie‘s Ten Little Niggers (1939; rev vt And Then There Were None1940) with the action from Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” (January 1924 Collier’s Weekly), itself subsequently adapted into the film TheMost Dangerous Game (1932). Director Paul Arnett disagreed with producer Milton Subotsky about the addition of the gimmick but those that enjoy The Beast Must Die as a piece of period kitsch – there are overtones too of Blaxploitation in the soundtrack and casting, of early 1970s Television thrillers in the helicopter pursuits and estate-wide surveillance Technology, and of the more strained efforts of Hammer Film Productions to diversify in the film’s somewhat ham-fisted attempts at Equipoise – now seem to regard the interpolation of the werewolf break as delightfully reminiscent of a bygone era.
Already, during the first episode of The OA, one of the integral tethering points of Fantastika to a logic of sense – that events inside the fictive space should be read as literally happening – is disrupted. Transgression and Equipoise are put to fantastika’s traditional purpose of subjecting the fixity of the world to “fruitful instability” but there is little ontological framework by which to direct The OA’s system of Metaphysics: everything is diegesis and doubt. The fact the viewer does not know The OA’s true origin story means that we cannot properly invest in The OA‘s narrative arc; unless perhaps it is to question the very basis of consensual narrative. A film like Guillermo Del Toro‘s El laberinto del fauno [“Pan’s Labyrinth”] (2006) by contrast begins and ends its tale of a fallen princess oppressed by all-too-real forces in a Secondary World [see TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], making itself all the more concrete by turning its narrative full-circle. The OA‘s refusal to let its audience know where it stands complicates any attempt at interpretation, a decision accentuated by placing credit sequences at unusual junctures in episodes of unequal lengths, disjunctive pacing and switching between points-of-view and, most tellingly, by alternately supporting The OA’s version of events and throwing them into doubt. We are not showing you the literal truth, the makers of The OA are saying, because a human being literally does not know where she comes from or why she is here.
A science fiction story – even one written by a fabulist – would not play the game in quite the same way. Russell Hoban‘s Fremder (1996) uses a fictionalized version of quantum Physics to assert a subjective understanding of reality:
Centricity of event as perceived by a participant in the event is reciprocal with the observed universe: the universe configures the event and the event configures the universe. Each life is a sequence of event-universes, each sequence having equal reality subjectively and no reality objectively. Objective reality is not possible within the sequence, therefore subjective reality, regardless of consensus, is the only reality.
The overall effect is to (a) humanize and (b) expand the Star Wars project along familiar lines. The plot-holes – Bodhi Rook experiences a Memory Edit by a Supernatural Creature that is simply forgotten, the back-and-forth McGuffin of the Death Star schematics in fact bears very little logical examination and the last-minute romance between Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor is rumoured to have been accentuated by reshoots – seem to be an interesting feature of conversation for the fans rather than any reason to doubt the efficacy of the franchise. The economics speaks for itself. Rogue One is one of a number of recent sf films and tv series that successfully insert a strong female lead into action narratives without including other women among the major protagonists: it is difficult to build a meaningful dramatic triad around such a character without reverting to “father” or “lover”; hence, Jyn begins the movie by doing it for her dad and ends it holding hands with a man (see Women in SF). If certain sequences of Rogue One seem familiar to fans of science fiction cinema, it is more than vague similarity: editor Colin Goudie mapped out the film before shooting began by using footage from other films, in much the same manner employed by the Duffer Brothers during the pitching process for tv series Stranger Things (2016-current): the interrogation scene from Aliens (1986) was used to stand in for Jyn Erso’s first meeting with the Rebel council for instance, and a scene from Wargames (1983) was used to pace-out the sequence in which Jyn and company break into the Imperial data banks. This does not harm the overall effect: originality is not required. George Lucas reacted positively to Rogue One after making some disparaging remarks about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – he has since apologized to Disney – and there are rumours he may become more closely involved in future spin-offs, all of which will be standalone projects that refer to the central corpus of nine films without affecting their events. Disney’s investment seems securer than most:-