How the Horror Subverts the Fairytale Witch Archetype


Editor’s Note: The following contains She Will spoilers.The latest from Intermission Films is Charlotte Colbert‘s She Will, a conceptual horror in the vein of religious horror like Saint Maud. Alice Krige‘s steely, misanthropic Veronica Ghent retreats to the Scottish Highlands following a double-mastectomy. The film takes on themes of aging, recovery, female persecution (and empowerment), and intergenerational trauma. Alice Krige is magnetic as someone simultaneously brittle and powerful — following in the footsteps of Jessie Buckley in men and Niamh Algari in Censor, Krige does all the heavy lifting with the focus entirely on her. In She Willthe director is offering a fresh perspective on older female characters within this type of framework/subgenre – approaching the “Lady in Peril” and “Malevolent Woman in the Woods” tropes from a unique angle. Colbert brings a new dimension to the conversation by subverting the role of the fairytale witch, and remixing a classic in a compelling and fearless new way.

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Veronica — all furs, acidic asides, and barely suppressed rage — Ghent and her young nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) arrive at a self-help getaway appalled by the transformational rhetoric they encounter. Horrified to discover it isn’t a solitary retreat at all, Veronica learns she must endure an insufferable self-help guru (Rupert Everett), his wealthy, ass-kissing peers, and their strange customs for a week. Not long after her arrival, she begins experiencing Argentoesque nightmare sequences (the score is all goblin-like fractured dissonance, the colors tinted in the film stock of folk horror classics of the 1970s). Plagued by waking dreams, levitation, dark thoughts, and transient mud composed from the ash of dead witches. But rather than flee the untamed wilderness, finds herself strangely revived by the dark history of a landscape rife with superstition and witchcraft and how it aligns with present cultural preoccupations.


RELATED: ‘She Will’ Review: A Magnificently Sublime Tale of Witches Finds Awe in the Supernatural

Typically, the kind of roles inhabited by older women in witch-themed fairytales, folklore, and popular culture have primarily been villainous. The Witch archetype has manifested in multiple iterations throughout history, with the “Old Woman as Monstrous Other” image rooted in the storybook tales of The Brothers Grimm. More recent examples in horror history of this trope are exemplified in The Mother of Sighs in Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Mario Bava’s Black Sunday also has a soul-sucking seductress who literally feeds on youth. Alice in Blood on Satan’s Claw disguises her corruption behind a youthful demeanor. Even the crux of Snow White‘s narrative is a sorceress driven to murderous extremes at the prospect of getting older. She Will subverts this archetypal role by taking on a surfeit of topics (without it feeling overstuffed) and letting Veronica straddle two distinct personas: of the innocent who strays from the path AND the malevolent woman, residing in the woods. Manifestations of the character in media have always denoted something wicked heading your way, until now.


The Witch, as a symbol, has often represented female transgression. She is a figure of hate often characterized by abject cruelty, spiritual corruption, and an unwavering desire to destroy or feed off youth. Witch has nearly always been shorthand for evil. In She Will, Veronica is recovering from life-defining surgery, and it is implied that she’s run the gauntlet in the court of public opinion. An early scene shows Veronica picking up a tabloid newspaper and glancing at a headline about the former actress, connecting her to a scandal, the details of which are left obscure. Building false narratives around women, glorifying monsters, and demonizing victims has become the tabloid’s own insidious form of modern-day myth-making/witch-hunting. Veronica is already a symbol to be feared by the time she arrives, for unspecified reasons. This is where the witch archetype of fairytales past prominently overlaps with Veronica’s plot.


It was a stroke of genius casting Alice Krige as the main character. Anyone familiar with her filmography will have certain assumptions before watching shewill, and they will be quashed. Krige played the omnipotent and all-powerful Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contactthe shape-shifting Mary Brady in sleepwalkers and cult leader Christabella in Silent Hill. Hell, she even played the cannibalistic witch in Oz Perkins 2020 gruesome retelling of Hansel and Gretel. Fans of Krige will have preconceived ideas about the direction Veronica takes in She Will. One way Colbert turns the trope on its head is by purposely misleading the audience and making us question whether Veronica has dark intentions. Veronica meets the criteria for the “Witch of Fairy Tales” archetype in several ways: vanity, contravening social etiquette, admitting in an offhand manner that she hates children, being vindictive, being reclusive, being cruel, and having a self-contained personality. On the other hand she is glamorous, haughty, fragile, and empathetic to the women burned as witches years earlier. Another deconstructive tweak of the Baba Yaga-like child-eating/youth destroyer is Veronica’s nurturing nature towards her nurse Desi, recognizing Desi’s untapped potential and genuinely wanting the best for her. That is, only for the character to later exact revenge via astral projection and pyromania to people who’ve hurt her deeply and others who barely slighted her. The witch of folklore is considerably more single-minded. It is not so much a reinvention of a trope, as much as it is the evolution of a character escaping the stock characterization of fairy tales.


The next notable aspect is how Veronica reacts to the presence permeating the woods. Veronica doesn’t unwillingly submit or gradually become corrupted by an otherworldly influence against her will. Rituals happen and yet she comes to no harm. The forces are something she develops a kinship with and embraces. She becomes familiar with the horror that happened in this remote place and finds it relatable. The parallels between women under the thumb of a hierarchical order and how it connects thematically to the #MeToo movement might be on-the-nose, but the witch conceit is an effective tool for exploring these issues. Throughout the movie she retains her autonomy, never loses sight of who she is, and ultimately makes a conscious decision to relinquish control to ancient, primal forces. She Will does go down a hitherto unexplored avenue highlighting a woman in her later years combating the trauma of historical abuse through the prism of witchcraft.

Colbert is an intense visual storyteller and makes every frame count, from Veronica strolling through a fog-shrouded landscape in a white nightgown (formerly reserved for wide-eyed ingénues in a Hammer Horror film), to the wide scope of her camerawork, the woods , the women, the remote locations, and Veronica’s Norma Desmond-like wardrobe, Colbert pays respectful homage to and honors the legacy of cinema in the occult canon while standing firmly on her own two feet. The most vital element is how she frames the main character and the profound and positive messages this framing conveys about how aging should not be restrictive. Alice Krige is a commanding screen presence and brings a terrifying gravitas to the part, while remaining a balanced individual – allowing her to be equally flawed and vulnerable. The film incorporates elements on aging while making aging (in this universe) a non-issue by interrogating our perceptions of what constitutes beauty and what constitutes power, challenging the idea that the witch can only be a creature bound by fear, consumed by malice, or be fundamentally wicked. Veronica is none of these things, both beautiful and a force of nature. She lives her life on her own terms and the character is never undermined by anything resembling a redemption arc because she does not need to be redeemed. Colbert approaches the witch from an interesting, morally complex, and ultimately refreshing new angle. Every component of how She Will is shot, from themes and motifs emerging quite naturally, to the story’s admittedly wide scope and atmospheric art direction, to the visual storytelling mirroring her state of mind, to even the frames of reference are all in service to Veronica’s story, and not necessarily the plot, which takes a purposely ambiguous trajectory as the movie progresses. It’ll be interesting to see if Colbert, as a filmmaker and storyteller, strays from the path of established tropes for her next movie.


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