Throughout my entire screening of The Witch, sighs of boredom, hints of awkward laughter, and lit up phones echoed inside the theater. It was an audience who expected a film much like the trailers we saw beforehand (The Conjuring 2, The Darkness). They wanted an amusement park haunted house, something to give them a quick rush to bounce off their sugar high and give them a couple moments of brief excitement. Hell, I’m sure there was some guy in there trying to pull a move on a girl he’s been crushing on for months. However, the fact of the matter is that The Witch simply isn’t that kind of movie. It’s not interested in making it’s audience jump out of their skin so much as it wants to slowly crawl inside of said skin. It certainly cast that spell on me, as there are still images here that are hanging in my head a day later, which to me, is true horror.
We find ourselves in the middle of of the 17th century as a rigorously fundamentalist family is exiled from a local plantation. William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch of the family is intent on making a better life for his family as they live off the land, while his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) anguishes over her lost home of England. Meanwhile, trouble becomes afoot when baby Samuel disappears under the watch of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s oldest daughter. In a moment of frustration, she jokingly claims that she is a witch to her two younger twin siblings in order to scare them, but as further supernatural forces seem to continually damn her family, suspicion and paranoia starts to shift in her direction.
What makes The Witch work so well is first time feature director Robert Eggers’ encompassing commitment to authenticity. Nothing about this is dumbed down. The language and use of heavy old English dialects is dense and occasionally challenging, the lush cinematography paints a gritty beautiful picture of a completely un-idealized version of the period, and the scares are slow to arrive but potent when they do. It’s not a film that spoon-feeds its audience in any way, letting them draw their own conclusions about the horror around them, while providing plenty of nightmare fuel to stimulate that kind of thinking. In fact, it feels more like a mood piece than a movie at times, and while that makes for a pretty slow first act, it provides a hell of a payoff later on.
Often times the greatest weak point of a horror film is in the performances. However, this ensemble of incredible actors both young and old is The Witch’s greatest weapon. So much of this film relies on how the characters interpret very subtle things, and the sheer complexity and terror that each of them bring to their roles is spectacular. Taylor-Joy is particularly impressive, as Thomasin is the character who ultimately grounds the film. She’s a young woman not only dealing with the destruction of her family, but the idea that this very family wants to force her into a marriage she does not want to be in. She brings all of this across so effectively and convincingly, that we hurt almost as much as she does as her life unravels. Harvey Scrimshaw is also fantastic as Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb, particularly in one scene that contains perhaps the best performance by a child actor in a horror film since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Frankly, it’s a shame that the Oscars never recognize horror films, as every one of these actors would be a worthy awards contender.
The only place where The Witch really falters is in it’s conclusion. While the story crescendos nicely into heartbreaking brutality, the note it ultimately chooses to end on is a bit flat and silly. While so much of this film’s power lies in it’s ambiguity, this ending ultimately makes everything feel very objective. It’s something out of a different, less restrained movie, almost as if it was added in later to pad out the run-time. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but it leaves things a bit cold.
The Witch most certainly isn’t for everybody. It’s an obtuse, dense film that can occasionally be a bit hard to grasp. However, for those who are willing to do a little work, and have the patience to wade through the slower parts, there’s a whole lot of depth here. It’s certainly one of the most well directed and acted horror films in recent years, and while it doesn’t quite hit the high notes of something like It Follows, it really isn’t trying to. In a year where we’re going to see a whole lot of the same thing, the fact that such a strange and complex film is being released so wide is a perplexing privilege. While it may not be your cup of potion, it’s certainly worth a shot to encourage more films like it. It certainly cast it’s spell on me.