As a devout fan of horror, I consume as many as I possibly can — gorging myself on the cinematic equivalent of junk food. While the smorgasbord of mindless bloodbaths keeps me satiated, the tasty indulgences offer little more than empty calories. Most of what we’re treated to as fans of the genre is pure sugar, all style and no substance. Rarely does a film come along that is not only a beautifully well-crafted horror film, but also just a really good movie. Rarely does a genre movie make it to theaters that has the ability to nourish and satisfy long after the closing credits.
The Witch is a movie that can feed the hunger of die-hard horror fans, providing the necessary elements of dread and terror, while also satiating the tastes of discerning cinephiles looking for dramatic storytelling and expert filmmaking.
Much like The Babadook and It Follows, recent critically acclaimed psychological horrors that severely divided audiences, The Witch is a film wrought with allegory and symbolism…a slow burn that derives its real horror from what lies just below the surface.
Fans of fast paced, straightforward horror replete with jump scares, boogeymen and gory kills may be turned off by The Witch’s deliberately slow and thoughtful approach, which seeks to reveal more about human nature than terrify us with some big bad. At its core, this is a character-driven drama about a family on the verge of self-destruction — living in isolation, struggling with questions of good and evil, suffering a crisis of faith.
THE NATURE OF FEAR
The family is plagued by fear. But fear of the unknown, fear of what mysterious evil forces may be lurking out in the woods, is only part of it. For much of the film, it’s not even the largest part. First and foremost is their religious fear. Devout, puritanical Christians, they have a healthy fear of God… fear of being judged, of not being pious enough, of not being worthy of love and forgiveness. It’s a fear that causes shame, distrust, and desperation.
At the same time, they have a fear of being abandoned by their God. Ostracized by their community for their religious beliefs, the family finds themselves alone in the unforgiving pioneer wilderness. However, instead of being rewarded for their spiritual fortitude, they suffer greatly while facing harsh elements, starvation, and the mysterious loss of their infant son.
Finally, they have an inherent fear and distrust of each other. Instead of bonding together as a family to survive the challenges of their harsh realities, they are torn apart by their misfortune. When things go from bad to worse, it’s not long before the entire family gets in on the blame game, with pointed accusations of witchcraft that are taken all too seriously.
This is a horror film and, with a title like The Witch, you’d expect the film to be permeated with a supernatural evil presence. There is, in fact, a literal otherworldly threat lurking in the woods. But the real horror of this film stems from the elements grounded in harsh historical reality. This film beautifully illustrates the true terror of an early 1600s patriarchal society wrought with religious fervor and a strict moral code that systematically disenfranchised women and set the stage for the horrifying Salem Witch Trials.
A FEMINIST FABLE
It’s appropriate that a film with such strong feminist undertones make its debut in February, a month dedicated to Women in Horror. At the center of this film is the family’s eldest daughter, a young woman named Thomasin, brilliantly portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy. It’s her quiet but compelling performance — as a girl forced to come of age against a backdrop of isolation, oppression, and her own family’s growing mistrust of her — that makes the movie work.
The titular witch makes a shadowed appearance early on in the film, but we spend the rest of the film trying to figure out what her presence means in relation to the disintegration of the family and in the context of the patriarchal religious framework that seeks to deny and suppress the feminine power. Are the witches really evil, or are they simply feared because they represent female empowerment and sexuality?
The film does an exceptional job driving home the point that we often fear what we don’t understand, using terms like “evil” to define what scares us and challenges our carefully constructed moral frameworks. The Witch is a film about having your faith tested and having your worldview shaken to the core… about what happens when everything you thought was true is proven wrong.
A TECHNICAL MASTERPIECE
Regardless of how effective you find the storytelling, the technical merits of this film are hard to deny. The Witch is simply stunning to look at. Beautifully shot against an impressive visual landscape, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke does an extraordinary job framing the secluded colonial setting in a way that effectively sells the sense of isolation, regret, and growing tension experienced by the family.
Robert Eggers makes an incredibly impressive directorial debut, masterfully building foreboding tension through eerie atmospherics and immersive details that make the supernatural elements feel terrifyingly grounded in reality. Aided by a haunting score from Mark Koven, Eggers expertly knows when to linger on a shot just a little too long, creating a slowly mounting sense of dread and uncertainty for what will happen next. Eggers intentionally uses the slow building tension to methodically build up to the climactic and provocative finale.
The film is also helped tremendously be impeccable casting and stellar performances from the entire cast. In addition to the revelation that is Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson (known for the British Office) and Kate Dickie (known for Game of Thrones) shine as the insufferably pious parents who try desperately to hold on to their all-consuming faith as their marriage crumbles and their family is torn apart.
The children in the film are equally exceptional, a rarity for such young actors. Harvey Scrimshaw is Caleb, the eldest son who, like his older sister, is struggling with his own commitment to devout righteousness in the face of his budding sexuality. Then there are the family’s set of creepy fraternal toddler twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), who add greatly to the strange and strained interpersonal dynamics.
The Witch, one of the most highly anticipated horror films of 2016, is a film that is both helped and hindered by the overwhelming hype surrounding it. As is inevitable with a film that has received so much early buzz and critical praise, there’s an inherent skepticism among some fans and a knee-jerk “What’s the big deal?” type of reaction.
It’s a film that is naturally divisive. Undeniably a horror film, it runs askew to most traditional horror tropes, leaving most of the fear and dread to subtext. There is much more horror in what is left unknown than what is actually shown. The emphasis here is on the moody atmospherics and the strong character performances, a fact that may not live up to some moviegoers’ expecations.
It’s slow, intentionally slow. For audiences that demand action-packed, thrill-a-minute entertainment, this may disappoint. For those who appreciate a more artful approach, The Witch is an epic cinematic experience that delivers on multiple levels.
The Witch is a movie that is not easy to define or label. It’s at once a painstakingly detailed period piece rivaling traditional Oscar bait, a film about the perils of religious hysteria and the devastating consequences, a feminist fable of a young women’s sexual awakening, a heartbreaking drama of a family falling apart, and a haunting supernatural thriller filled with dark and mysterious forces.
For me, this is a must see film and easily promises to be one of the best of the year. While ridiculously easy to recommend, it’s not a film for everyone. And therein lies its real charm and power. In a genre, rather an entire industry, saturated with cinematic junk food, The Witch is a balanced and nutritious meal. It may not be what you think you crave, but it’s infinitely more satisfying.
As a fan or horror you should, at the very least, appreciate what this film has been able to do. Whether you love it or hate it, The Witch has helped elevate and bring credibility to the genre. The success of this film can only help ensure future funding for more intelligent and thoughtful horror and respect for genre filmmakers. That’s something I think we can all feel very good about.