THE WITCH: WELL CRAFTED HORROR
“The Witch is a dark and dangerous folk tale swirled with doses of paranoia and sheer madness, it is slow , methodical , and takes time to build a relationship with its characters before plummeting them into the bowels of hell.”
Review By Jerimiah Anderson White-Douglas
Image from A24
There is no denying that some genuine delight can be taken from the occasional popcorn film but it is both a blessing and saddening that films such as Robert Eggers The Witch are not the mainstays at your average suburban movie house. The Witch is the slow burn type of visual marvel that comes around only once every 300 years (a joke but not too far off). A film that could have easily emerged during the heyday of 70’s experimental and occult cinema and stands shoulder to shoulder among such genre twisting classics such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession.
The Witch opens as we are thrust head first into a world of rejection and religious oppression in the name of god and the church. William (Ralph Ineson), a simple New England farmer, has been cast out of his village for reasons unknown and is forced to leave with his family and start fresh in the harsh forest that surrounds them. To make matters worse William’s eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor – Joy), is blossoming into a woman with new found ideals and sexuality that seems to be attracting the attention of her younger brother Caleb (a show stopping performance by Harvey Scrimshaw).
The matriarch of the family, Katherine (Kate Dickie), seems to be threatened by her daughters blossoming and believes it is now time for the young woman to go out on her own away from the family unit. The strained relationship between Thomasin and her mother becomes even more so one afternoon when Thomasin’s infant brother is literally snatched from under her nose, she is also unable to say who or what is responsible for the abduction. To make matters even worse none of the crops William has planted this harvest seems to be growing and a general feeling of malice and unease permeates the land.
Is the devil responsible or even worse some old crone who has joined forces with the demon? Is Thomasin herself in league with Lucifer? Is Thomasin’s her budding sexuality a sign of oncoming womanhood or something much more sinister? Why is Caleb acting so feverish after entering the forest? Is the family goat, Black Phillip, a harmless farm animal or the crown prince of darkness himself? These questions are answered with the utmost care and attention to detail.
Robert Eggers is a master of the slow burn method of storytelling , at times the film might feel a bit slow and deliberate but all he puzzle pieces eventually fall into place mapping out a story that is as close to perfection as I have seen in a long , long time. Mr. Eggers has even gone so far as to use only materials that could be found within the time period to build the housing structures and the dialog and language spoken is very specific to the New England setting of the 1800’s.
At its heart The Witch is a study is psychology and paranoia, what can happen when religion is allowed to run rampant and control the way the population thinks and lives day to day. As much as Robert Eggers has crafted a gorgeous New England Fable (also the subtitle of this film) he also crafted one of the great psychological thrillers in recent memory. Mr. Eggers owes as much to the psychological paranoia and abstract surrealism of David Lynch as he does the sweeping black and white occult epics of Val Lewton. Much of the fun derived from watching a film such as The Witch comes from the guessing game hidden within. Is The Witch herself real or there to represent the crumbling down of the family dynamic in the face of sudden changes? Are the occasional scenes of stark terror real or a hallucination in the minds of a slowly crumbling isolated people?
The Witch is Mr. Eggers’ first film and he is at once already a master of creating images and scenes that will hold fast to the brain and stick with the viewer long after the end credits have rolled. I will say this, in my opinion; The Witch has one of the most gorgeously grotesque sequences of violence in its first 20 minutes that I have ever seen committed to celluloid. Eventually The Witch does come clean and reveal what kind of film it really is, but by this point it has reached such a fever pitch of horror, devastation, and hysteria that I was chilled in a way that I have not felt in many years. Witchcraft has been put on film in many forms over the years however Mr. Eggers is able to create such a feverish nightmare by the films end that it becomes both visually and audibly deafening.
The cast is uniformly phenomenal. The in The Witch being the young Anya Taylor – Joy as Tomasin. Ms. Taylor – Joy is in nearly every single frame of this film and gives a performance that is both tender and tough. Tomasin is a young girl but her body and life are evolving in ways that make her question almost everything and everyone around her. By the films finale , when Tomasin comes face to face with the true horror of what is happening in the forest, Ms. Taylor – Joy, gives what can only be describe as a flawless and heavily affecting performance.
The final scene of The Witch will stay with you long after the film ends and this is largely due to the actors abilities to stay credible in the face of some truly horrific and fantastic events. The rest of the cast works extremely well in what is essentially an ensemble piece. Every single actor/actress gives award worthy performances that balance out the levity of the grave situations at hand.
If you happened to pass up The Witch when it was given a wide release in February because it looked like the usual Jason Blum garbage (i.e. Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge) really missed out on seeing a very special film. The Witch is the little film that could. Mr. Eggers premiered his film at Sundance in the fall of 2015 where it swept the awards and got mucho critical praise. A24 distribution snapped up the North American rights to The Witch and (what is a very ballsy move) released it wide instead of giving it a limited/VOD on demand release. The Witch is most definitely a different kind of beast, not the kind of film your average Friday night crowd is going to rally behind (the crowd I saw it with filled with many exclamations of bewilderment) but kudos to A24 for breathing some fresh life back into the matinees for a change.
The Witch is a dark and dangerous folk tale swirled with doses of paranoia and sheer madness, it is slow, methodical, and takes time to build a relationship with its characters before plummeting them into the bowels of hell. That’s what great horror is and what great horror does. At its center, and above all else, that’s what The Witch is; a truly great horror film.