It’s an old unspoken rule of filmmaking that if your horror movie has a monster that doesn’t look convincing, you should scrap everything and start over as quickly as possible. Anything that looks fake can’t be scary, that’s just how it is. Unfortunately, making werewolves or aliens or robots that look authentic and terrifying is tremendously difficult. If you actually want your audience to see the monster (shooting in near-darkness to obscure the threat is a time-honored practice of cheap horror cinema), that monster had better have a crap-ton of time and money and expertise poured into it.
There are, however, two exceptions: vampires and zombies. Though there have been plenty of shows to put a decent budget into crafting their undead ghouls, all it really takes is fifteen bucks’ worth of makeup and ANYONE can make a halfway decent vampire or zombie. This, I’ve long suspected, is a crucial part of why the marketplace has become so heavily oversaturated with vampires and zombies over the past several years. But now, the marketplace has become so heavily oversaturated that we’re in need of a new monster to exploit. Preferably one that’s every bit as easy and low-budget to create.
Based on how things have been going lately, it looks like we’re giving witches a try.
Granted, witches still have a lot of good press going for them in the wake of Harry Potter’s ongoing popularity. Even so, the last few years have given us The Last Witch Hunter, The Seventh Son, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and ParaNorman, among others in film and TV. None of them have exactly caught pop culture wildfire, but there’s definitely a sense that witches could be the next monster to be exploited en masse. It certainly helps that witches have a wide range of potential powers and weaknesses to fit any budget, they have the kind of legitimacy that comes from centuries of lore that’s just loose enough to play around with, and again, witches don’t necessarily need expensive makeup or CGI effects to pass muster.
So here’s The Witch, brought to us by debut writer/director Robert Eggers. Much like The Babadook and It Follows from previous years, The Witch appears to be the low-budget uber-hyped indie horror film of 2016. And to be entirely fair, the trailers definitely made the full picture look creepy and scary as all holy-fuck-no. It certainly helps that Eggers reportedly strove for realism in all things, making sure that the costumes and production design were as period-accurate as possible. Eggers even went so far as to shoot entirely with ambient light, much like The Revenant did to gorgeous, immersive, Oscar-worthy effect.
The movie even threw in a title card — at the end, just after the writer/director credit, for some stupid reason — informing the audience that several story points and even some lines of dialogue came straight from various records and folk tales of the time. Unfortunately, while this adds a layer of authenticity to draw the audience in, it also means old-timey language spoken in thick accents to push the audience away. While the dialect is hardly impenetrable, it will definitely be a dealbreaker for those who don’t have the patience to try and get used to it. Also, anyone sufficiently familiar with Shakespeare’s work (as I am) will come in with a significant advantage.
Moving on to the film itself, The Witch is set in the 17th century, at just about the time and place of the Salem witch trials. The film opens as William (Ralph Ineson) and his family is banished from a New England Puritan village for… um… well, it’s not entirely clear. As far as I can tell, there was some kind of disagreement about religious beliefs and William decided that he’d rather leave the village for good than try and play along with everyone else.
Anyway, it’s a few years later and William’s family has set up a nice little farm in the middle of nowhere. The family is also comprised of William’s wife (Katherine, played by Kate Dickie) and no less than five children between them. Our de facto protagonist is Thomasin, the eldest daughter, played in a phenomenal turn by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. The second oldest is her brother and confidant, Caleb, played by Harvey Scrimshaw. It’s also perhaps worth noting that the two of them are… *ahem* coming into their own as adults, if you catch my meaning. There’s no overt mention of incest, and of course the characters themselves are quick to push away such shameful and impure thoughts. Even so, it begs the question of how William could possibly have thought that this farm would be a viable long-term institution to be handed down through the generations. What’s more, Caleb naturally starts acting foolish in the effort of proving himself as a man, and Thomasin’s unintentional allure comes back to bite her in a big way when accusations of witchcraft get flung around. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Next up are a twin pair of little hellions named Mercy and Jonas (respectively played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson). The two of them are loudmouthed and annoying little brats who seem overly fond of a particular black goat. Which makes them prime candidates to either practice witchcraft or suffer the receiving end of it. Last but not least is Samuel, the baby whose disappearance serves as the catalyst for a whole ton of freaky shit that leads to crops rotting away, livestock acting insane, and members of the family getting killed off one by one.
Obviously, given the nature of the story and the source material it draws from, anyone who’s ever read “The Crucible” or “The Scarlet Letter” will find quite a few familiar concepts here. But personally, while watching the movie, I was much more frequently reminded of Antichrist. Granted, this movie is never anywhere near as explicit or fucked up as Lars von Trier’s opus, but they’re both definitely in the same class. They have a similarly dreary color palette, and both films place a heavy emphasis on culminating a creepy atmosphere instead of throwing jump scares at the audience. This includes a similar fascination with spilled blood and naked flesh.
(Side note: I don’t like quoting other reviews, but Drew McWeeny of HitFix absolutely nailed it when he said of this movie, “it feels like we’re watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.” But again, that’s something that could just as easily be said of Antichrist as well.)
More importantly, both films make similarly extensive use of pagan visuals and imagery centered in nature. Looking at how this film portrays trees and animals, it’s borderline impossible not to make the comparison. It comes down to the conflict of man vs. nature as a means of symbolizing the conflict of order vs. chaos, which is something else that Antichrist presented to mind-blowing effect.
However, here’s where the comparisons end: Witch puts a much heavier emphasis on the conflict of good vs. evil. Make no mistake, this story is built on the premise that the witches of old were real. We’re talking about people who look and act just like anyone else, except that they have the power to deceive and ensnare good Christians, spreading death and disease everywhere they go, because they dance naked in the forest with Satan on a regular basis. So our Puritan characters are led to believe that only through constant prayer and unyielding service to the Lord do they have any chance at protection against Lucifer.
But the sad thing is, they don’t.
I’ve read one or two reviews of this movie that accuse it of leaning toward the fanatics who really did burn innocent young women to death. But I beg to differ. The important thing to remember about these characters is that they are devout Christians who are very proactive in staving off any evil influences. These characters do absolutely everything right, except for one crucial mistake: If William didn’t make the choice to thumb his nose at the rest of his village, none of this would have ever happened. Whether it’s William’s refusal to go back to the village and beg for help, or whether it’s a character who charges after trouble thinking that God will protect them or they can take care of themselves, every bad decision in this movie comes back to the sin of pride.
The film doesn’t really have a message for or against any religion. It would be more accurate to say that the film depicts humans as foolish specks caught adrift between grand cosmic forces that we only pretend to understand. The movie seems to make the statement that there is evil in the world; no force can stop it, and no greater force will save us from it once we’re caught up in it.
When the chips are down and there’s no longer any question that something supernatural is at work here, the characters’ first reactions are to appeal to a higher power and to accuse each other of witchcraft. Both approaches only hasten the bloodshed. Because in the face of such an overpowering threat, you’re only as strong as the person standing next to you. Without any kind of reliable support, there’s nothing left but to join that evil or be destroyed by it. Escape is no longer an option, never mind victory.
The whole film revolves around Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy, and both of them turn in spectacular work. In particular, I really don’t think I can stress enough how great Taylor-Joy is going to be once she hits her stride. That girl is going places. As for the rest of the cast, I’m sorry to say that they’re kind of hit-and-miss. The actors are all aces in the third act, when shit is going down and they’re free to turn the paranoid terror up to 11. But all through the first half of the film or so, the child actors turn in some line deliveries that are just cringe-worthy.
Of course, all of this is beside the main question: Is it scary? Yeah, it definitely is. A lot of that comes from Mark Korven’s score, which alternates between cacophonous and dead silent in the most disturbing ways. There’s also the central notion of the well-intentioned family that gets fucked over despite doing everything right as best they can, which engenders audience sympathy and leads us to care about their fates.
But by far the scariest thing about this movie is in how it presents the supernatural threats. The camerawork and editing present the scares in such a way that it feels like we’re only getting a peek of what’s really going on. We’re compelled to keep looking for just a little more, even as we know we’re probably not going to like what we find. It makes for a demented and hellish atmosphere with a select few reveals that are truly devastating, all of which are amplified by the dreamlike presentation that makes the whole movie (especially the third act) feel like a night terror. Unfortunately, that same dreamlike presentation has the unnecessary drawback of obscuring the plot in places. If I tried to recap the plot right now, I confess that there would be places where I could only shrug my shoulders and say “this happened because the devil willed it.”
(Side note: Imagine my shock to find that the film was co-exec produced by Chris Columbus. Yes, that Chris Columbus. The hack director responsible for so many pieces of saccharine dreck over the past few decades. Yes, I know he made Harry Potter and Home Alone — he also made Bicentennial Man and I Love You, Beth Cooper. How the fuck did Chris Columbus get involved in making this picture?! At a guess, maybe it had something to do with his daughter, Eleanor Columbus, here credited as another co-exec producer. Seriously, how did this happen?)
The Witch is definitely not a movie for the unprepared. This movie was very specifically made to challenge its audience, daring you to engage with it on a mental and spiritual level to make it that much more disturbing. Anyone looking for a quick and easy bit of horror fun with gratuitous violence and jump scares should look elsewhere. This is much more of a slow burn that puts a far greater emphasis on atmosphere, with results that will definitely stay with you for a much longer time.
Anyone who’s up for a uniquely shocking and grotesque movie should definitely seek this one out. Though if you’d rather play it safe and wait for a DVD rental, I doubt you’d lose much.