Seventh Son, the film adaption of portions of The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney has much going for it: compelling visuals, an episodic format with lots of beasties and action, a pleasing admixture of humor, horror and romance wrapped in a fantasy/supernatural package and, best of all, witches: good, bad and in-between.
You might guess that I’d be interested in witches, especially since witches as monstrous figures will be a key focus of my forthcoming book Feminist Perspectives on Zombies, Vampires, and Witches: Radical Monstrosity in Literature, Film, & TV. My co-author and I posit that while zombies and vampires have been resurrected in contemporary narratives in complex, often feminist ways, the witch, as a female monster, is harder to resuscitate.
Although Seventh Son was raked over the coals by critics (Rotten Tomatoes reviews, on average, gave it a 4.6 out of 10), I found it quite enjoyable, despite lead character Jeff Bridges’ oft-panned accent. While admittedly not on par with the likes of the Harry Potter or Hobbit films, I was perhaps more apt to give it a thumbs up for two key reasons: I don’t like the fantasy/supernatural genre’s tendency to rarely include witches—one of my favorite monstrous/magical figures—and I am in the midst of reading the book series, which adds depth to the stories the film adaptation lacks.
At Punch Drunk movies, reviewer Andres Correa gives an overview of the film:
The story of Seventh Son is a simple one: Jeff Bridges plays a Spook (a fighter of evil) named John Gregory on a journey with his apprentice Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) to defeat a clan of witches led by Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Of course, it all sounds like generic fantasy gobbledygook. However, underneath that, it’s a tale of two men trying to stop a group of empowered women. It stands to reason, then, that Seventh Son just may be a parable for man’s resistance to the feminist movement.”
Indeed, the film adaptation fails to critique the surface level misogyny of the Spook and the wider narrative arc, which led Correa to call it “weirdly sexist.”
This reading of the film is understandable, but is not in keeping with the book’s more nuanced explorations of gender parity. Further, the film is not so much about stopping “empowered women” as it is about stopping one powerful witch: Mother Malkin. Julianne Moore is splendidly wicked as Malkin, so much so that I found myself looking forward to seeing her incarnation of the monstrous feminine, much as viewers both desire and dread the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.
The opening of the film visually links Malkin to the horrific womb imagery explored by feminist theorist Barbara Creed. Discussing representations of the “cavernous, malevolent womb of the mother” in film, Creed explores the female body—and especially its generative power—as a source of both “dread and fascination.” Seventh Son plays on this representation of the monstrous feminine, depicting Malkin and her sister Lizzie, also a witch, as dangerous, mutating forces that threaten the social order.
Creed, writing of films such as Alien, The Thing, Poltergeist and Jaws, argues
What is common to all of these images of horror is the voracious maw, the mysterious black hole which signifies female genitalia as a monstrous sign which threatens to give birth to equally horrific offspring, as well as threatening to incorporate everything in its path. This is the generative archaic mother, constructed within patriarchal ideology as the primeval ‘black hole’. This, of course, is also the hole which is opened up by the absence of the penis; the horrifying sight of the mother’s genitals—proof that castration can occur.
As the film opens, the imagery is redolent of this “voracious maw.” Mother Malkin is caged within an underground pit—a black hole from which she threatens to emerge and destroy the Spook, who locked her there. Within the pit, the imagery oozes with wet mud and pulses with flesh-like movements. The camera work allows us to see Malkin’s scope from the bottom of the pit, as she looks up at the sky from the bottom of her vaginal-like cave. As the scene closes, Malkin breaks free of the pit in dragon form, with snakelike tendrils hanging from her head, reminiscent of Medusa (whose head, according to Freud, symbolizes the terrifying aspects of female genitalia).
Shortly after, we learn Malkin has possessed the body of a 10-year-old girl—a key departure from the opening book of Delaney’s series, which insists that witches usually possess the bodies of adult males. The strength of women, and their ability to resist possession as well as to complete heroic acts, is a running theme of the series.
While the film loses some of the empowering female focus of the first book, it stays true to the more egalitarian focus on both female and male characters. As in the books, Tom Ward, the young apprentice at the series’ helm, is paired with a young witch, Alice, who is his equal in terms of power (though the movie ups their romance).
The key notion that good and evil are not as clear cut as often imagined is embodied nicely in the film by Alice. In a discussion with Tom, she makes it clear that the Spook’s tendency to see witches as abominations is no better or worse than Malkin’s viewing of humans as abominations, suggesting that most, like her, are an admixture of good and bad. Via this narrative thread, which is admittedly more pronounced in the series, the story is critical of the designation of women as the evil, monstrous Other.
The film also has Malkin and her sister Lizzie vow there will be “no more fearing of men.” This drive to neither fear men or allow oneself to be betrayed by them drives Malkin’s vengeance, which is a step up compared to women being evil for evil’s sake, or merely because they are women.
Even the Spook, who is no fan of witches or women, explains to Tom that Malkin was not always evil, but rather became what she was perceived to be. He thus underscores the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy of patriarchy—that, if you define woman as Other, that is what she is bound to become.
While the film is not groundbreaking in its focus on various beasties of the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery variety, it does offer an array of complex female characters and, at least in part, invigorates the figure of the witch with feminist strains. No longer are witches mainly wicked, as they have been in most narratives after industrialization, but rather they are healers, herbalists, midwifes, forces for good and shrewd businesswomen. They are also encumbered by human fallibility; they, too, have hearts that can be broken and souls that can turn dark.