Title: The Witch
Release Date: February 19th, 2016
Studio: Parts and Labor, A24
Director: Robert Eggars
Release Format: Theatrical
Horror didn’t really have a fantastic go of it last year, as most mainstream releases were cheap sequels such as Sinister 2 and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension that failed to capture any of the intrigue and mystery that made their originals great. Even as we close in on the third month in 2016, mainstream Hollywood horror still hasn’t brought anything of true substance forward as both The Boy and The Forest were mediocre at their best. Enter director Robert Eggars’ New England horror The Witch that is already with audiences and Satanists alike. While very few horror movies break out from the independent scene, The Babadook being one of the most notable, this slow burn of a tale shows that we have yet to run out of genuinely frightening tales. Though not without its flaws, the experience walking away was largely enjoyable and exceptionally refreshing.
As mentioned earlier, The Witch is set in 1630’s New England as a family of Puritans are banished from their village and decide to go live out in the woods. As one can only suspect from the name alone, soon the youngest member of the family goes missing which spirals the family into a mess of paranoia, religious zealotry, and violence. Though this may at first glance seems like a simplistic story, the beauty of The Witch is how complex and dynamic the lovely, God fearing family really are. Normally I would find issue with a horror movie having such a basic fairy tale story, yet the use of visual imagery helps sustain the weight of such a, at its core, lack-luster plot. The use of animals to represent the various forces at play, along with the mix of both pagan and Christian imagery help produce both feelings of dread and hopelessness. However, this heavy lean on visual imagery does ruin what could be a far more terrifying aspect of The Witch.
Since witches have to make pledges with The Devil, it was fairly obvious the big man himself would show up at sometime or another. Now I do have to say Spoiler Warning, despite how pretty much any audience member with a slight knowledge of Christian/Pagan symbolism being able to figure this out within a minute of its appearance. About a quarter way in a black goat appears and couldn’t scream “I’m The Devil!” loud enough. Yes, normally the tension of Satan actually being around the family would ratchet the tension up, however, Eggars never seems to commit to this. The goat just goes about his merry way, occasionally flashing evil stares at wayward family members who hang around him too long. It’s frustrating because the goat sticks out like a sore thumb and is so painfully obvious that he can be hardly taken seriously in any scene, including what’s suppose to be an emotional climax. The witch on the other hand rarely shows up during the film, but this serves the plot far better. For the few minutes we actually get to see her, Eggars uses actress Bathsheba Garnett to full effect. Her scenes feel other-worldly as if you are trapped in some sort of hellish nightmare and serve as some of the most terrifying moments in The Witch.
However, a horror movie is only as terrifying as the family being targeted by whatever malevolent force that decides to drop in and The Witch offers some fantastic characters. From the outset, there is clear uneasiness with the family’s dynamic as the eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to be the black sheep (goat?) of the group. Beyond falling into the rebellious teen cliche, Thomasin is arguably the most morally centered of the family as she tries to cope with the isolation and overbearing evil that is plaguing the family. We see the plot unravel through her eyes, yet there are always questions around her looming as paranoia slowly sets in. Anya Taylor-Joy does a commendable job in the role, pushing her character to have a wide range of emotions beyond just simple fear. Truthfully, as horrible as it is to say, watching the family devolve into accusations and distrust is arguably one of the best parts of The Witch, as the threat of just a supernatural force almost takes a back seat, almost. The head of the family William, played wonderfully by actor Ralph Ineson, chews his way through dialogue as his faith and resolve are tested to the extreme. What’s truly fascinating about his character is that you get real moments of doubt when he makes his decisions. His morality is tested and in turn, challenges the morality of the audience to decide if what he is doing serves his family best. It’s a good choice by Eggars to have us question the people we should be rooting for, as by the time this conservative 90-minute story rolls credits you’ll walk out not knowing who exactly the real hero is. Bit of a hint, it’s not Satan.
There is also the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) are fine in their own right but never feel fully flushed out. This especially goes for the twins as you may honestly forget they even existed at times. You can tell that the story is already trying to develop the core family, so the twins almost feel tacked on and their purpose by the end of the movie doesn’t feel earned or gratifying. This goes double for the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) who honestly feels the most out of place in this cast as she falls into fairly notable tropes we’ve seen a dozen times. All she ever seems to do is yell at Thomasin, and pretty much everyone, about their devotion to God, coming off as more comical than scary. I wanted desperately to like her character, but she receives so little in the way of backstory and development that it was hard to care for her really at all.
Thankfully The Witch is backed by an amazing score that continues to build as the plot unravels over the length of the movie. Coupling this with the wonderful cinematography and interesting use of a more avant-garde approach to the showing the witch and it easily makes up for these downfalls. The Witch isn’t a perfect horror film, but serves as a great representation of how important character development and the use of imagery is to enhance the scares. If you are looking for a slow burn that will keep you on the edge of your seat, then look no further. The Witch is a devil of a good time. See what I did there?
- Acting: Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Inseson drive this story forward with the fantastic range, emotion, and power they put into their characters. While the other actors are competent in their performances, only actress Kate Dicke feels out of place.
- Cinematography: With of a mix of classic and art house style filmmaking, T he Witch offers a largely unique experience when watching it. Pushing away from the traditional jump scares we see, every camera movement is purposefully designed to draw you into the scene as slowly as possible. Boosted by amazing and atmospheric sound design and you will be sucked into the horrors quite rapidly.
- Story: Director Robert Eggers gives us a fantastic take on a New England folk tale that is full of paranoia, cruelty, religious extremism and the challenging of one’s faith. Not falling back on horror cliches, The Witch presents a far more interesting and developed story.
- Characters: While the witch herself makes minimal appearances, thankfully the rest of the characters carry the intense story with ease. Aside from a lack of development for some of the family member’s youngest children overall they are probably more fleshed out and dynamic than one might expect.
- Ineson and Taylor-Joy
- Great Score
- Scarcity Of The Witch
- Fantastic Visual Imagery...
- ...Except For The Goat
- Twins Feel Underdeveloped
A recent graduate of Arcadia University, Collin MacGregor is a freelance video editor and writer. He covers video games, television, and film for The Nerd Stash. Collin currently is the head film/television reviewer for the site.