Drama / Films / Horror

The Witch: Review

Whilst mainstream horror seems to be getting progressively worse, the indie scene is going from strength to strength, with creative and exciting new directors turning their hands to genre flicks and making some modern classics. Recently, The Babadook, It Follows, The Innkeepers, Goodnight Mommy, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, have all proved to be brilliant, with some standing up already as modern classics. And now there’s The Witch. After doing the rounds in indie cinemas for the past year, with Robert Eggers winning Best Director at Sundance, The Witch comes already with a certain amount of hype. Thankfully, it lives up to it. This is a haunting and unsettling movie and possibly, the best yet of the indie horror Renaissance.thewitch3As with the best supernatural horror movies, the supernatural elements are both unquestionably solid and real, yet at the same time, fraught with psychological uncertainty.  Like The Babadook or The Shining, the monsters are both external and internal, and can be both at the same time. Within the first ten minutes of The Witch, we’re presented with an outside threat; there is, without question, a witch in the woods. Yet after giving us this monster so early on, the movie then spends the rest of its running time making us question what we actually saw. The film has a phantasmagorical quality; it’s oneiric and steady which means we’re always unsure if what we’re seeing is really happening, or if we’re just seeing what the characters think is happening. Either way, the results are effective because The Witch is less concerned with its monster and more concerned with its monster’s effect on the family. That’s not to say the monster is short-changed – real or not, the way the supernatural is presented in this movie is fantastic – the witch itself appears differently in different situations, things seem to change form, animals come across demented and insidious – Black Philip especially – and we never have quite enough grasp on the threat, exactly what it is or where or how it works, which creates a terrifying ambiguity. There’s a sense of alien, demonic evil which smothers the movie. You feel constantly on edge. Anything could happen at any time. This then, in turn, spins us back to our characters – despite the supernatural elements, The Witch is at its core a film about a family unravelling and turning against one another.thewitch6This is set up from the outset. Unlike other horror movies, which start off happy and descend into chaos, The Witch feels unpleasant from the start. We’re introduced to them being exiled from their community and forced to live in the woods – the father, William (Ralph Ineson, shedding any relation to The Office’s Finchy with a booming, patriarchal performance) has done something to warrant being banished, though we’re never quite told what. The implication is almost that he’s too godly, which is important for what follows. There is something wrong within the family – the mother Katherine (a wonderfully unhinged Kate Dickie) seems to deeply resent oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who herself, on the verge of womanhood, is frustrated within her confined family. And then there’s the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who freckle-faced and young, is burdened with the responsibility of adult masculinity, whilst sneaking glances at Thomasin’s growing chest. The two twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) seem to have a private and disturbing bond. The loss of the baby so early in the film, and the bizarre circumstances surrounding his disappearance, acts as a catalyst for these existing problems to come to the forefront.thewitch2There’s a suggestion throughout, that it’s the family’s desperate need to avoid sin at all costs which is ripping them to pieces. Whilst the idea of witchcraft is almost banter to the children, watch how quickly the parents latch onto it – the mere suggestion that someone could be a witch is enough to completely turn favour. Is the act of defying evil enough to summon evil in? Is the hypocrisy of their words compared to inner thoughts – lust, hate, wrath – enough to generate the external evil which haunts them? Does this, combined with them starving over winter, create the witch? Or could there be a further logical explanation to what’s going on – ergot poisoning from bad crops causes mass hysteria, and these days, is often considered one explanation for the Salem Witch Trials. The movie however never becomes The Crucible 2.0 and instead, spins off for a wild final act which may confuse some audiences and terrify others – a real throwback to Rosemary’s Baby. Eggers layers his film with supernatural, psychological and the physical – we’re never sure where the mania comes from, but what is clear is the impact it has on the characters. There’s elements which feel almost taboo for American cinema in general; it’s an American nightmare of a movie, a perversion of American dream and God and religion and faith. The film is sold by its incredible cast – even the kids give stellar performances, and Anya Taylor-Joy sets herself up as one to watch.thewitch4The Witch is a profoundly well directed movie. The cinematography is stark, bold and beautiful in its bleakness. Eggers lists The Shining as the movie’s inspiration and it’s easy to see why. The movie follows a similar structure and shares the same atmosphere of crushing, never-ending dread. In terms of structure, we get quieter character moments of the family coming apart, punctuated by moments of surreal and unimaginable horror which become almost unbearable to watch. It’s difficult to look at what’s happening on screen even when nothing is really happening; the shots, like in The Shining, last just a little bit too long, in a masochistic way. Though the film isn’t designed with jump-scares, we’re constantly expecting something to make us jump – the movie keeps you on the edge of, and squirming, in your seat. One sequence almost directly mirrors The Shining’s Room 237 sequence with a beautiful, alien woman emerging from the wood, and its equally as haunting. The soundtrack, which also mirrors The Shining with hints of 2001’s scary chorus wailing, is one of the best horror soundtracks of all time and really pushes the movie up a level. The music is always building to a crescendo – you get the sense things are always escalating. It’s an intense experience in the cinema – and if you let the movie in, it’ll really get under your skin and play on your mind.thewitch5What’s interesting to note is the marketing – the movie has been slightly miss sold, and is bound to disappoint certain audience members going in expecting something else. The Witch, after Eggers won Sundance’s Best Director, has slowly been billed as the scariest movie in forever. And in some ways, it is. The movie is terrifying – but it’s built on an unusual kind of horror, one which won’t translate to your average audience. The film drips with a sense of utter, unrelenting dread which makes you feel unsettled and uneasy. It plays on your mind long after you’ve finished watching it, and some reviewers have described it as seeing something you shouldn’t be seeing. This is a paranoid period piece highlighting a time when living was a struggle, and almost works as a fable or fairy-tale – note the film’s subtitle – A New England Folktale. It’s an art-house movie in a lot of ways, and in recent terms, has much more in common with The Babadook, or It Follows, than it does say Annabelle or The Conjuring. This is a mature, slow burn movie, a fascinating psychological exploration of myth and reality, and audiences going in expecting witches jumping out of barns to loud music stings are probably going to say it’s terrible. Part of this is the fault of the marketing, and part of it is a lack of imagination in modern audiences, who want to see the same old thing without being challenged. Already, there’s some audience backlash towards The Witch, as there was with The Babadook and It Follows – and it’s an issue other critics have discussed. Judge this way – if you watched The Blair Witch Project annoyed that you never got to see the witch, then maybe avoid this movie. It’s the best horror movie of the year and bound to become a future classic.

5/5

 

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