There’s evil in the wood
Horror is a tricky genre, one I’m not particularly crazy about. Most of what passes for horror films these days are high concept murder-fests (looking at you The Purge) and low budget ghost stories (looking at you Paranormal Activity). Regardless of my judgement of those films, they are wildly successful and it’s not hard to see why. Horror fans typically know what they’re getting into when they walk into a movie and they usually leave pretty satisfied. It’s not difficult to generate genuine terror for 2 hours behind loud noises and jump scares – make a scene quite enough right before you throw a vicious pang of a screech at the audience and even the most stone-faced viewer will flinch. That’s not storytelling, it’s biological manipulation. Which is why I get so excited when a horror movie with as trite of a title as “The Witch” is up to larger schemes.
Similar to last year’s early breakout horror film It Follows (which made my top ten), The Witch has more on it’s mind than just spooking audiences for an hour and a half. Whereas It Follows played within the confines of the horror genre and subverted some common tropes, director Robert Eggers plays with the very idea of the genre as a whole, aiming to redefine what a horror movie can look and sound like. You won’t find any shaky cam, gratuitous gore, or scream queens in this period piece. The film takes place in 1630 on a Puritan New England plantation. The characters speak in a rich, antiquated dialect with plenty of “thees” and “thous” peppered throughout their speech. But this is a calculated move by Eggers, who meticulously researched his debut project for years before finally committing to telling an authentic witch tale. Now this choice may turn off some people, who might struggle to follow along with the narrative and truly focus throughout the runtime. But for those patient enough to invest in it, the attention to detail is there and it’s extremely rewarding. You’d be hard-pressed to find better production design in any horror film. Same goes for the cinematography and writing. Typically horror films are in a rush to move onto the next image or set piece in order to set up the next scare. But The Witch feels no such pressures. Tension is built through the dialogue and scenes (framed in beautiful wide shots) take their time to develop, letting you linger on the images and creating a slow-burning sense of dread.
An appropriate comparison can be made to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (which Eggers himself has acknowledged was an inspiration) that similarly baffled audiences upon its release. They both share an emphasis on stark tone, reliance on psychological terror as well as the supernatural, and both of their endings are enigmas. Again another possible point of objection to viewers is The Witch‘s non-resolute ending, which is left open for interpretation (which I won’t spoil). Whereas I personally love films that raise more questions than they answer, this could be a sticking point for some so consider this caveat on a case-by-case basis. A quick shout-out to relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy who plays the lead “Thomasin” with wonderful grace and charming vulnerability.
I hope The Witch finds the audience it deserves. More people need to be exposed to good horror as a reminder to the kind of power the genre can yield as an art form. Robert Eggers is a true craftsman with a keen eye for detail and shot composition. But don’t confuse my specific praise on its technical prowess with dullness. The Witch has some utterly terrifying moments in a handful of particularly tense scenes. But what I hope comes across in this review is that The Witch is aiming higher than the current bar that is set for horror films. Along with the standard Biblical implications of “good vs. evil” are several societal commentaries, chiefly the disintegration of the family unit and the scapegoating of women. My friend Sean who I saw the film with told me later that The Witch was about “as eerie of a movie as I’ve seen” because he couldn’t shake the feeling of it afterwards. I couldn’t agree more.