In 17th century New England, a deeply religious Puritan family leaves a plantation to build their own farm in a rural area. They soon become tormented by the evil lurking in the surrounding forest, leading the family to slowly turn on each other.
The Witch is helmed by debut director/writer Robert Eggers and was picked up by indie powerhouse A24 after receiving considerable acclaim at Sundance. The cast consists of largely unknown yet incredible actors including: a couple of minor Game of Thrones alum, newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy aka Katherine Heigel Jr., and a trio of very capable child actors.
Well, just about everything. It hits all the right beats; each instance exhibiting the festering of paranoia within the family culminates with activity from the witch, each sequence stronger than the last. It boasts a balanced tandem of morbidity and restraint, slightly favoring the less-is-more approach but without holding back too much. It subverts the norm of the modern horror film, most of which belong in a faraway landfill. But above all, it’s just straight up scary.
Though the script, born out of Eggers’s childhood fascination with witches, is undoubtedly strong and well-written, several other elements come into play to really milk the terror out of Eggers’s words. The screen is continually enveloped by a bleakly pale, muted palette, wisps of fog ever-present and though it was entirely shot in color, some scenes almost seem to be black and white. While most of the imagery contributes to the stomach-turning, atmospheric sense of dread, there are some scenes that are downright frightening, despite some of them lasting only a few frames. Mark Korven’s utterly bone-chilling score grabs you by the throat from the opening seconds, only loosening its grip periodically. And despite all of this, the setting and the story never feel contrived; the bond of the family coming apart at the seams and the unceasingly palpable presence of evil feel all too real. Whether you have lived with a Puritan family in the 1630s and believe in witches or not, Eggers still manages to deliver a strong sense of authenticity, a lot of which attributes to writing the dialogue with the language of the times, some of which is purportedly pulled verbatim from first-hand accounts of witchcraft from that era. Spooky… With all this, he creates an insulated, unnervingly believable world, painted with a grey primer of staunch Puritanism and vandalized over and over again in the color of evil by the devil himself.
Recent films like The Babadook, It Follows, and Goodnight Mommy set the bar high for modern horror films by avoiding cheap scare tactics though remaining somewhat palatable to the average moviegoer. But The Witch is in a league of its own. While the aforementioned films were a hard slap in the face of the naysayers who dismiss horror as a limited genre, The Witch is a chokeslam from Kane followed by a Tombstone Piledriver from The Undertaker onto a steel chair to the naysayers who dismiss horror as a limited genre. With the near-perfect marriage of the right elements, The Witch manages to instill pure fear into the viewer without the need to resort to hackneyed scares all the while retaining its artistic integrity. Attribute it to hyperbolic recency bias or whatever, but I truly believe that in the coming years, this film will find itself in the upper echelon of essential, horror classics.
What doesn’t work?
The dialogue, for the most part, is fairly comprehensible. However, the archaic, colonial-era biblespeak coupled with the English accents might make it difficult to understand certain lines of dialogue. Additionally, there is some brief imagery sprinkled throughout the film, depending on the tolerance and/or sensitivity of the viewer, which can very well be considered as disturbing. Nonetheless, these are, at most, minor and purely subjective issues that shouldn’t avert anybody from giving the movie a chance.
The Witch is a masterfully frightful exercise in horror that delivers its scares via dread-inducing atmosphere, the religious fanaticism and fascinating lore of witches at its core, and the occasional frightening imagery. It is essentially the 17th century version of Rosemary’s Baby, double-dipped in some more terror and paranoia. It is a nightmare that you don’t want to wake up from; a 93 minute episode of sleep paralysis. In this week’s box office battle between heaven and hell with Risen and The Witch having the same release date, you’d be remiss to not side with the latter, no matter your religious affiliations or cinematic proclivities.