Written by J. Weagle
A New-England Folktale.
I think it is safe to say that there are not many films like The Witch. Set during the highly devoted religious period New England that manages to jump between the hardships of the the time as well as the supernatural. The Witch is not a fun movie, it’s not a roaring good time in the traditional sense. It’s extremely fascinating however, watching characters deal with the struggle of banishment trying to survive and how faith plays such a role in their survival. Over the past few years we have been graced with what I consider a new wave of horror films from young directors (It Follows is the one that comes to mind) and what these films do is challenge your perception of what we know as a typical horror film. The Witch may even outshine every other one of those films as it ups the anti and soaks and thrives in giving viewers an authentic New England folktale experience.
The film opens with a very religious family of seven being banished from a small community for their particularly strong religious beliefs. Now alone in the world and defending for themselves they take up residence in a battered and rotting house and barn in a clearing just at the edge of the woods. The father holds his beliefs stronger than the others but is having a hard time supplying for his family. The mother is always on edge, terrified of her new life of loneliness and only tough times ahead. The oldest of the children Thomasin is no doubt the most progressive and strongest of the family though this will eventually play against her in the long run. The second oldest Caleb who seems nothing more than to admire his fathers leadership, but also has incestual pubescent feelings for his older sister. The two youngest siblings Jonas and Mercy who are always seen together dancing, singing and talking with the family goat. Finally the baby brother who is a new born and is the setup for our tale.
Almost right away the baby boy disappears and none of the family know what happened. I won’t spoil anything but it’s almost instantaneously that the film does a good job at blurring the lines of fever dream and reality always showing us something without much explanation of what it is we are witnessing. This is a motif that will frustrate some movie goers but allowing yourself to go along for the ride is totally worth it. As you can imagine the loss of the child sends the family into distress and chaos follows as the family and their beliefs begin to untangle.
It’s hard to believe that The Witch is director Robert Eggers debut film. It is so stunningly (and I do not use that word lightly) shot, that I would argue visual it belongs right up their with the likes of Kubrick’s The Shining. The immense attention to detail to the smallest of things and the stiff controlled camera shots give every second of scenes a sense of unease. The performances for the most part are top notch and somehow manage to work with the very real stylized speech (that sound almost shakespearean) and deliver grounded performances that don’t feel theatrical.
The setting and locations are jaw dropping. There is something sinister about the way in which Eggers shows us the woods that the characters begin to fear. The clothing and costume design is painfully authentic and it is as if no detail was overlooked. I would not hesitate to say that The Witch is perhaps the most beautifully shot horror film of the twenty-first century as the setting alone makes me want to spend more time in that world.
A lot of things crossed my mind while watching The Witch. The first is how such a great setting and subject matter has gone untouched for so long by filmmakers. This world and time period is so ripe with stories to tell and nightmares to haunt that it is remarkable it took this long for someone to take the subject matter seriously. I felt hints of John Carpenter’s The Thing throughout, as the film becomes a sort of (pun intended) witch hunt amongst the small cast. The Witch is certainly not a fun horror film intended for large groups of friends to gather around and have a good time. It’s a challenging film that asks, no demands viewers pay close attention and absorb in the hardships of the world it creates.
I’ve went this entire time not really mentioning anything witch related and that is on purpose and I think spoiling anything about this film would be a damn shame. It takes everything you know about a horror film and their conventions and does the complete opposite yet somehow always leaves you on the edge of your seat. Maybe it’s the subject matter (witch stories scare the crap out of me) or maybe it’s the fantastic direction, but I feel very comfortable saying that The Witch is perhaps the most unnerving, terrifying film I’ve seen.