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 Podcast.com, 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
Hear the audio podcast review of this film here.
You can contact us by e-mailing HorrorMoviePodcast@gmail.com. Or you can call and leave us a voicemail at: (801) 382-8789. And you can leave a comment on this review.
HORROR MOVIE PODCAST, where we’re Dead Serious About Horror Movies…