The Witch: A New England Folktale (2016) Written Horror Movie Review — by Jay of the Dead

The Witch Poster 3Note: This review DOES NOT contain spoilers.

Most people now understand that the horror of the Salem witch trials wasn’t that the accused were witches; the true horror is that the women who were executed were not witches, after all.

But writer-director Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” pre-dates the events of Salem, being set some 62 years prior in 1630, when it poses the question: What if an actual witch in the woods wreaked unthinkable evil to incite legitimate suspicions?

The film opens with a family embroiled in some court or community council that results in their disharmonious departure from the plantation. They set out on their own with plans to find a new home and re-establish themselves, according to their own principles.

Listeners of Horror Movie Podcast have heard me say many times that horror happens to those who deserve it least. This film is no different: As the lone family of seven struggles to subsist in the wilderness, profound heartache befalls them from a darkly magical and mysterious assailant.

I’m happy to report that this film actually features a creepy witch — and you do get to see her a little (unlike “The Blair Witch Project”) — but the actual horrors of this film are conjured through the repercussions of the wicked woman’s onslaught.

Indeed, the real horrors of “The Witch” are manifest in its depiction of how a tragedy can ripple through a family, tearing at its seams, creating subsequent tragedies. In “The Witch” the horror is portrayed through crises of faith, a systematic loss of security and the painful deterioration of the nuclear family.

You may have gathered by now that “The Witch” is built upon strong themes of psychological horror. Some might even call this film a dialogue-heavy slow-burn that’s thin on appearances of its “monster,” violence and gore. Admittedly, that’s a fair description, but as a notoriously impatient viewer, I can tell you that “The Witch” is still remarkably disturbing. I would freely call this an art house witch film, and I’m also comfortable with declaring that it’s finally a witch film done right. “The Witch” is genuinely haunting, and it remains with you.

Other horrific themes found in this movie are self-loathing due to one’s own weakness or sin, the way profound pain seems to emotionally echo around a household, parental regret, loss, grief, and tough questions about spiritual salvation. Truly, “The Witch” could easily be adapted into a stage play, with its high drama that escalates to a fevered pitch that approaches melodrama (and I’m not using that word in its usual pejorative sense).

At the end of this month, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will hand out its prestigious Academy Awards. Horror films have rarely earned Academy recognition, but if a horror flick were to ever look like “Oscar bait,” it would be “The Witch.” Sadly, this film’s technical prowess will be overlooked and under-appreciated, but again, this is an art film whose execution is excellent across the board.

My biggest complaint, aside from wanting to see a little more witch, is that the old, 1600s, King James-style English is somewhat difficult to understand, especially with the accents. But that’s more of a nitpick after considering that Eggers has effectively delivered a convincing period piece whose costumes, settings and performances are all exceptional.

Somehow “The Witch” even manages to make animals look menacing. Many films like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or “Night of the Lepus” have tried but failed to make a hare have some scare. But this movie pulls it off.

Earlier this year we were shown the graphic perils of frontier life in “The Revenant,” when a character is mauled by a monster in the woods, namely, a bear. I think a witch in the woods just might be worse…

As with the Hansel and Gretel folk tale, witches tend to target children. What can be scarier than the endangerment or loss of children? There are two shocking scenes involving children that I’m not sure how they were filmed — legally. Yes, I’m equally as uncomfortable writing that, as you are reading it. But presumably, the filmmakers have pulled some cinematic sleight of hand, or else this film would have garnered legal proceedings. Even though I have assumed this to be the case, the scenes are no less troubling to watch.

For those viewers who are persons of faith, “The Witch” is especially unsettling. In 1973, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” horrified audiences with its depiction of faith failing in the face of evil. “The Witch” is similarly potent because we witness many fervent prayers in the faithfuls’ darkest hour that seem to be falling on deaf ears. As a believer myself, I have personal reservations about such scenes, but it is, after all, a horror film, and horror is helplessness and hopelessness.

Much of “The Witch” features what I call “horror in the daylight,” which to me, is the boldest, scariest sort. This happy phenomenon can’t be accomplished without striking the right tone and atmosphere: Most horror films rely on dim lighting or heavily shadowed mise en scène in order to conjure an underlying, visual tone of dread.

But “The Witch” somehow appears to take this convention and descends to a new depth of darkness. Perhaps it is the gloomy and overcast landscape shot in late fall, with trees that are leafless and lifeless for winter. Even what should be sunny days are filtered to appear overcast and dismal. There is a bleakness that pervades this film that seeped into my insides by the end.

And the score to “The Witch” follows suit, with what sound like period-appropriate instruments. Stringed instruments like violins scratch, scrape and quiver throughout the soundtrack.

On Horror Movie Podcast, we aim to identify what kind of horror film we’re talking about. So, “The Witch” has a tone that is horror because the characters we identify with are surely all victims. And I would assign this film into a category that I call “Classic Horror,” because it’s a Drama first / Psychological Horror second / and Witch movie third.

I rate “The Witch” a strong 8.5 out of 10, deducting half a point for the hard-to-understand language and a whole point for having too few witch scenes. But I would encourage horror fans to see “The Witch” in the theater and buy it!

Rating and Recommendation for “The Witch”: 8.5 ( Theater / Buy it! )

If you want more horror movie reviews from Jay of the Dead, you can listen to his bi-weekly show at Horror Movie, where we’re Dead Serious About Horror Movies…

Directed by Robert Eggers
Anya Taylor-Joy | Ralph Ineson | Bathsheba Garnett
Sub-genres: Drama / Psychological Horror / Witch
MPAA Rating: R Runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release: February 19, 2016
Copyright 2016.

Hear the audio podcast review of this film here.

Jay of the Dead’s links:
Jay of the Dead on Twitter: @HorrorMovieCast
Jay of the Dead covers new releases in theaters on: Movie Podcast Weekly

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17 thoughts on “The Witch: A New England Folktale (2016) Written Horror Movie Review — by Jay of the Dead

  1. Jay, what a wonderfully written review! I already had solid plans to catch this in theaters, but you’ve got me NEEDING to see this now. Thank you for writing this up. I absolutely love your comments on the film’s themes and how the film affects you as a Believer. I’m curious to see how my own spirituality will inform my viewing of THE VVITCH.

    Speaking of which… Jay, did you happen to hear that The Satanic Temple is apparently screening THE VVITCH in a few cities across the US? Yup, it’s true. They endorse the film, I guess, for their own reasons.

    To anyone interested, here’s a link to their press statement on the matter, which I’m sharing strictly for educational purposes. I understand that The Satanic Temple is a group of secularists who use the devil philosophically (and theatrically lol) and that they aren’t the theistic satan-worshippers who believe in a literal devil, but even so… I’m not a big fan, so promoting them isn’t the goal here. Anyway, here’s the link should anyone take interest in seeing how this piece of art has affected this particular group.

    [ link has been removed by administrator ]

  2. Mister Watson,
    Thanks so much for your kind words and interesting comment… Now I feel very conflicted about celebrating this movie. Certainly I like it for different reasons…

    I hope you’ll forgive me for removing your link from your comment. (I did not edit anything else you wrote, Sir.) It may sound ridiculous to everyone else, but as a devout Christian who’s already a little bit conflicted over my horror fandom, I can’t have a website that links to any parties relating to Satan-worshiping. One of the tenets of my faith is that we believe people should be free to “worship how, where or what they may.” … But as for me and my house… ; )

    I understand why you included the link. Usually I’m all over stuff like that — how film pertains to culture and affects it. People can still Google it, if they wish. Sorry for editing you.

    Thanks for writing, Mister Watson. I appreciate your comment. Please let us know what you think of “The Witch,” once you’ve seen it!


    • Jay,

      No problem. I actually had a post script written that I forgot to post after my original comment that said, “Feel free to edit this content as you see fit, Jay.” No joke. I’m also a believer myself, so I don’t fault you for taking out the link. “As for me and my house,” indeed, sir. Much respect.

      Also, Jay… please don’t feel wrestle too hard with your morals over endorsing this film. The Satanic Temple is a far cry from the European theistic satanists you hear about every now and again who actually believe in a literal Satan and burn churches and all that. The Satanic Temple is even a far cry from the Laveyan satanists who run the official Church of Satan. I’ve researched The Satanic Temple because they have a chapter up here in the Pacific Northwest, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but they’re pretty lame. They’re basically neo-leftist activists who use the imagery of Satan to promote women’s rights and separation of church and state. That’s really about it.

      I would not feel even the slightest twinge of guilt for liking a film these people endorse, since they just want to twist the narrative for their own activistic purposes. Your review, Jay, was eloquent and so well done. You manage to reconcile your status as a Believer with your love of the genre. Not an easy thing to do, but you do it well. Much love.

      • Also, let me just say… I didn’t mean to come off in my above comment like I’m being dismissive of women’s rights and separation of church and state. I’m simply saying that using satanic imagery to further your political goals in the name of socking it to the establishment is a bit juvenile to me. There are better ways and better groups with whom to align oneself if you’re wanting to promote rights for women and such.

        Disclaimer ends here.

        • Mister Watson,

          Truly, may I just compliment you on your intelligence and tact in your excellent writing? I don’t think anyone who reads your comments could take offense or interpret offense from your words, except of course, for the folks of The Satanic Temple in the Pacific Northwest. ha ha. Besides, they don’t strike me as the type of people who would be easily offended, anyway…

          Yeah, one of the most interesting (and truly fascinating) internal conflicts I have within myself is justifying my love of the horror genre with the fact that I’m a Christian. (I haven’t been this intrigued with myself since I was a teenager… ha ha)

          Film art aside, I just can’t help but feel like I’m “batting for the wrong team,” when I’m recommending or celebrating a film that depicts evil beings committing evil acts. No matter what I tell myself, I just can’t believe that God likes horror movies… But I strongly believe God loves horror filmmakers, writers, actors and fans … just not horror films.

          Even so, of all the cinematic genres, it’s irrefutable to me that horror gives us the most frequent and in-depth depictions of the struggle between “Good versus Evil” — that epic and timeless battle. Evil often prevails in horror films, but then, evil often prevails in this world… at least, for now.

          To be perfectly honest, though, when I see the potent depiction of the crises of faith in “The Witch,” it actually inspires me to want to be even more devout, and to hold even tighter to my beliefs and my faith.

          Ironic, isn’t it, that a horrific horror film would inspire me to feel that way?

          “The Witch” release wide this weekend. Everybody go see it, and let me know what you think!

          Thanks again for writing, Mister Watson. Loved your comments here.

          • Jay, first off… thank you SO MUCH for your kind words. I sincerely take them to heart. In fact, when I read your last comment, it made my whole week, sir. THANKS!

            Second, I must say… the things you’ve written above about God and the horror genre are truly heavy, weighty things, Jay. I’ve been pondering your words over and over, just marveling at how complex and intricate it can be to remain devout while enjoying dark cinema. “He that is in me is greater than he that is in the world” perhaps? I don’t know. What a truly strange paradox to try to put words to.

            Horror films were the very first films I came to love as a pre-schooler. True story. And so, years later, when my family became a church-going unit, I still kept all my horror films and books because to me, the Sunday morning Christian rituals were a very real acknowledgement that there is another world behind this one… that there is more to life than what we see… that there is a supernatural world beyond the veil that we respond to and that also responds to us. Horror, to me, was (and still is) the only genre of film, literature, and even music that touches on that for me.

            Anywho, Jay, I saw THE VVITCH last night and absolutely LOVED it. A bleak film, yes, but I’ll tell ya… I couldn’t help but feel like the family REALLY WAS excommunicated from the church and the Grace of God because of the father’s pride. Perhaps there’s an allegory there pertaining to Lucifer’s own prideful fall? That the excommunicated family is in a Hell of sorts? I don’t know.

            Jay, I hope you even see this comment. If so, please have a wonderful morning, afternoon, or night! :)

  3. A written review… yes! Of course, I’m skipping this until I see the movie (despite your professed lack of spoilers), but I can’t wait to read it after next Friday. 😉

  4. Thanks for the non-spoiler review, Jay. Psychological horror messes me up way more than buckets of blood does, so now I MUST see this movie! (Not that I’m anti-gore, it’s just a very different experience, and less likely to give me any sleepless nights.)

    I’ll see if my attitude changes after watching this specific movie, but as a person of faith, I’m generally okay with unanswered prayers in movies (My first thought is Chrissy’s death at the beginning of Jaws and her repeated “Oh God please help me” screams). The Bible shows God’s ultimate victory, but even in the Bible mortals remain mortal and bad stuff happens to good people. For example, in 1st Kings, Jezebel killed many prophets of the Lord before Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal. I have to wonder how many of those prophets screamed “God help me” as they were being slaughtered. God never promised a zero casualty rate, and eventually we all die of something.

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  6. This may sound like a dumb question, but a friend and I are going to this movie, and she has a bit of a tragic past, so I’m trying to vett the movie of sorts, does anyone get slaughtered by a hammer like weapon?

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  8. Finally got around to reading this. I agree with most of what you said, and you very eloquently captured many of my thoughts. I particularly liked how you pointed out that “the actual horrors of this film are conjured through the repercussions of the wicked woman’s onslaught.”

    I don’t necessarily agree with deducting points for the time-specific dialogue, but I do agree that it took some time for me to adjust my ear. I definitely don’t agree with your criticism about not seeing “the witch” enough – in fact, that’s my least favorite criticism I’ve heard of the movie (not just from you). Personally, I feel like that’s missing the point of the movie, but I suppose it’s all subjective based on your reading of the film.

    As far as mentioning The VVitch as the most Oscar bait horror film out there, you’re probably right, but I’m still reeling from the fact that It Follows did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. I know I’ve said it before on here, but I just don’t see how that’s not one of the best original scores of 2015.

    • I agree with Dino. The film benefited from the lack of witch time because of a little something that you always say is missing from modern horror, Jay. And that is tension. The witch was Hitchcokc’s bomb on the bus. We were told there was a witch, we saw a little glimpse of the witch, but “the bomb” never really went off. We didn’t need to see her though. The imagination filled in the gaps wonderfully and conjured up feelings and images far scarier than anything the movie could’ve shown us. Even at the end, when a certain devilish creature appears, we only barely get see him. His voice combined with the girl’s facial expressions along with the implication of who he is, is more than enough to strike fear in anyone with a beating heart… or a pacemaker.

  9. JOTD – I’m also not sure I agree with the following statement:

    “… horror happens to those who deserve it least. This film is no different…”

    Who exactly was not deserving of the horror? The father’s pride led to the family’s banishment from the colony, and his lies thereafter effectively tore apart the family; the mother’s pride led to her turning on her daughter; Caleb lusted over his own sister and lied to his mother; the twins frequently spoke with Black Phillip.

    Ironically, Thomasin may have been the only member of the family undeserving of horror. That treads into tricky territory, though, because I think you can reasonably read her ultimate story as a liberation from the shackles of society, in which case she wouldn’t necessarily be a victim.

    Again, like I said initially, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your statement. I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. I certainly don’t agree that the rest of the family was undeserving of the horror they experienced, but the picture becomes less clear when talking about Thomasin.

  10. Just found your excellent podcast and also recently watched The Witch. I really enjoyed your review, and I had a potential explanation for the lack of Witch in the movie. I watched the movie and thought it represented Thomasin descending into madness. The final scene really made me feel that way. Just an alternate approach to viewing the movie.

    Keep up the great work!

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