The Witch (2016)
The Witch, or The VVitch as it seems to be spelled in promotional materials, is the latest in a recent line of artful horror movies designed to attract snobs who typically don’t bother with such fare. As a longtime lover of both ends of the horror genre–I had a lot of fun watching Chopping Mall for God’s sake–this is a trend I can really get behind. Fancying up scares with careful filmmaking is not an explicitly new way to go, but the degree to which it is being approached in recent years is truly impressive.
One of the coolest things about The Witch is its extreme simplicity. We’re introduced right away to a 17th century family new to colonial New England and struggling to find a township that the religious father William (Ralph Ineson) can agree with on a consistent basis. William decides the best decision is to set up a farm for his family a day’s ride from the nearest community; there he can conduct his life and those of his family as he pleases. Ralph, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children begin a new life in which everyone has plenty of responsibilities to keep the wheel turning.
The oldest child of the bunch is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl coming of age and struggling with her role in the family and her journey to adulthood. One day she is playing peek-a-boo with her literal baby of a brother Samuel in the field when he suddenly disappears. Everyone is distraught, and Katherine constantly snipes at Thomasin that Samuel’s disappearance is her fault. Did a wolf take Samuel? Were evil forces at play? Whatever the case, Katherine has no problem blaming the tragedy and virtually everything that comes after on Thomasin.
Over time, it becomes abundantly clear to William and Katherine that something sinister is going on around them. The only problem is that they have no idea what it is or how to react. Katherine is much more quick to judge than her husband, but even William eventually gets forced to make a decision. Everyone’s faith and resolve is tested. The levy breaks. Nothing is the same.
The Witch is a very bleak movie both in its appearance and its material. It takes its sweet time getting from place to place, and I think it is absolutely fair to call the pacing slow. For many films, this could be an issue, but for The Witch it’s an undeniable strength. Drawing out tension in the way first-time director Robert Eggers does works very well in atmospheric horror, and the dread this movie possesses practically oozes out of each scene. It’s clear from the outset that some unfathomably awful things are going to happen, but by playing the long game Eggers is able to make all of his decisions much more striking.
Much like last year’s It Follows, The Witch is notable in its cinematography and score, albeit it with a far different approach. Eggers and company paint the fields and forests of The Witch as the open jaws of fear, every frame doubling down on a kind of sparse terror that made me feel alone and isolated. The score is often discordant and jarring, using stray blasts of loosed string instruments to create apprehension in another way. I enjoyed everything about the way The Witch looked and sounded, as all of these decisions helped reinforce a plot that is used as more of a vehicle to drive home sensory activators than anything else.
Also worth appreciating is the movie’s attention to detail. You won’t hear any random phrases or see any random items that stick out as anachronisms. It’s borderline confusing to hear a horror movie adhere to 17th century English the whole way through and not dumb things down for our generation of emoji peddlers, but that’s exactly what Eggers (who also wrote the script) does. The prevalence of religion plays a massive role in the way characters in this film think and act, and staying true to the time period of the story helps reinforce that we’re watching these people think in ways we simply wouldn’t in the 21st century. William has instilled in each of his family members that almost every act is shameful in God’s eyes. He’s not a particularly bad guy or anything, this is just what he believes and it colors the actions of everyone around him.
There isn’t a whole lot I didn’t like about The Witch, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that the ending left me cold. Eggers lands on a completely direct ending that comes across as a little campy given the high-brow approach of the first 95% of the film, and while I can appreciate not going for the ambiguity prestige directors might choose, I think there was a point slightly earlier that could have wrapped up the story in much creepier fashion. The relationship between Thomasin and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is also cut a bit short of where I would have liked it, as they were the two siblings closest in age and there were some interesting suggestions in play. As for those twins, well, they’re just as creepy as you’d want a pair of horror movie twins to be.
The end result is one of the better horror outings of the past few years, one that seeks to induce thought and heart-pounding dread by making you watch events unfold in a painfully methodical manner. The Witch is an expertly made film, a legitimately scary experience, and a viewing that even moviegoers not well-versed in the genre should be able to appreciate. Horror traditionalists may not love the genre being built up like this, but if I could see a few of these a year I’d be thrilled.