As I said a lot earlier in this enterprise, I have watched a lot of horror movies over the years. A lot. I do enjoy a good horror movie. But therein lies the problem – I said a good horror movie, and because I love the genre, I am a lot tougher in my judgment of them. The last time a movie actually frightened me was Ringu, and that was back in ’99; I was writing these things for a goodly portion of a decade, and I am all too familiar with how they tick. I’ve torn them apart and put them back together again.
I’m not interested in the old cliches being rehashed, unless you can put a new slant on them. I appreciate movies that have some actual thought behind them. I’m a bad fanboy, I guess. Meh horror movies feel like a betrayal to me.
So I’m inclined to be friendly toward The Witch.
In 1630s America, a family is cast out of a settlement for being the wrong kind of Puritan. They set up house near the edge of some woods and begin to scratch out a life for themselves, which doesn’t go well at all. Their farm is failing. The father trades his wife’s silver cup to some traveling traders for traps, which aren’t catching any animals. Then the family’s infant son is stolen away by – they think – a wolf, but it’s actually a witch, who grinds the baby up (offscreen, thankfully) to make an unguent so she can fly through the night sky.
Things go downhill from there.
All of that is covered in about the first twenty minutes; the rest of the movie is an examination of how the isolation and increasing paranoia of the family causes it to turn on itself, as something in the woods – and it is not simply the title character – begins to prey on them. The bait for this subtle trap was already there – the teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy)’s burgeoning womanhood troubles them all – especially the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who’s hitting puberty. The father, William (Ralph Ineson) can’t bring himself to confess to the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) that he made off with her cherished silver cup. And the young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) are six years old and monsters anyway. The fact that they keep talking to the ominous he-goat, Black Phillip – as if he can talk back – isn’t helping matters. This family was heading toward a crisis of some sort, even if an eldritch evil in those woods wasn’t actively resenting their intrusion.
The Witch, as I said, is a fairly subtle matter that won praise at festivals but not a lot at theaters, where audiences were expecting Saw or something, not a “fucking art film”. I suspect that this lack of patience was exacerbated by the thick accents of the characters; after five minutes I gave up and turned on the subtitles, much like I had to do with Attack the Block. My ear attenuated to it eventually, but the theatrical experience didn’t have that resource.
Writer-director Robert Eggers has tried to create a historically accurate picture of life in 1630s New England, up to a point (in the commentary track he’s quite forward about the times he had to fudge for the sake of the picture, and why). A movie like this has to rely on the talents of its actors, and it has to be admitted that in this case, Eggers hit a home run with each and every one. The level of emotional commitment is high, and the experience of Ineson and Dickie is evident; but special praise must be doled out to Taylor-Joy, who carries the weight of the story, and Scrimshaw, who is bewitched in one of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, which took three days out of a twenty-eight day schedule to shoot.
It is quite an achievement in many ways, this movie. Stephen King says it terrified him. I’m not willing to go quite that far, but in the realm of well-made, intelligent horror movies, it definitely stands tall. It’s not a movie to see if you’re looking for action and extreme FX, but if you’re in the mood for thoughtful horror, and willing to be open to the experience, it is impressive in both intent and execution.
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