So this film has had some buzz around it for a while. It was made on three-million dollars, earned forty-million at the box office, and apparently scared the likes of His Royal Scariness, Stephen King. Naturally, when it hit theaters back in February, I wanted to see it, but no theaters near me were playing it. When I found out last month that it was on DVD, I immediately went to my library’s website to reserve it…only for some punk to steal my copy when it came to me (a curse upon them, preferably involving witches!). But this week I got my copy, and I sat down over dinner to see what the big deal was.
The movie follows a family of 17th-century Puritans–parents William and Katherine, teenagers Thomasin and Caleb, and twins Mercy and Jonas–as they’re banished from their Puritan settlement because apparently Will’s interpretation of the Bible is too extreme for the community (not sure how that is, but maybe I’m too Jewish to notice). They settle in a field on the edge of a vast forest, unaware that there’s a witch living in the woods.
What surprised me most about The Witch is how it differs from other horror films. It’s not a traditional film, in the sense that there’s a central evil that’s pretty obvious and the majority of the horror comes from that villainous evil. In fact, the titular witch is pretty peripheral in the story, acting more as a catalyst for the horrors of the film. I actually struggled to find the terror in the film until I realized that it wasn’t the witch that was the source of the terror (though she is pretty powerful, visceral, and primordial), but the family itself. Once the witch interferes with this family, they start to slowly implode upon themselves. It’s a really dark, psychological descent into hatred, fear, and suspicion, with the occasional intervention of the witch and a lot of heavy Bible speak. And it is scary to watch what happens to this family.
I also really liked the attention to detail. The filmmakers went to great lengths to find a remote location for the setting, and from there hand-build the house and farm, as well as the clothes the actors wore, and just about everything else. They even had museums consulting on this project, which goes to show their dedication. The authenticity, coupled with sparse lighting and the dirty feel of the place, adds to a very creepy atmosphere. And the music, usually involving a fiddle or zither, invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey in its ability to place us in the story.
Despite how scary it was and the research that went into the film, The Witch did have its problems, though. There are some scenes that felt more like they belonged in a novel, rather than in a movie, quiet moments where characters are thinking and not speaking, and we can’t read their minds.It’s in these scenes that we have trouble connecting to the characters, which is bad when this film is so reliant on its characters to begin with.
There’s also an unresolved subplot involving Caleb and his relationship to his older sister Thomasin that’s never really resolved, and I would’ve liked to see where that could’ve gone. And like I said, it took me a while to realize what sort of horror film this was, though maybe that’s just me going in with certain expectations and being confused that they’re not being met.
And the old-fashioned dialect, plus the heavy accents and sometimes raspy voices, can make it difficult to understand what they’re saying. I had to turn on the subtitles about ten minutes in just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.
Other than those points, though, The Witch is a terrifying descent into religious mania and terror in a dark situation, with supernatural twists and a lot of religious overtones worthy of discussion by theologians (which apparently has happened). I’m going to give this film a 3.8 out of 5, and recommend you watch this one with the lights on while you’re at it. A wonderful debut from writer and director Robert Eggers. I hope I get to see more of his work in the future.
That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Make sure to read about the giveaway and submit your questions and comments for the Q&A happening on August 2nd (details here). I’ll check in again very soon, believe me. In the meantime, a good night to all.
Hopefully free of supernatural beings, right?