‘The Witch’ Review: The Tale of Black Phillip

Posted in The Screening Room by - February 23, 2016

I’ve lamented many times before about how horror movies rarely get the respect or attention that other films get. To this day, only ONE horror movie has ever won best picture at the academy awards (Silence of the Lambs 1991).  Now, no one here is saying that an Oscar nomination is the seal of excellence, but the “horror genre” over time has garnered several sturdy tropes and expectations, and they get a bad rap. Hey, I get it! Horror movies are generally made on super-low budgets but can sometimes promise a big return because they are usually made for teens and their horny dates. So that means a lot of people make them, and that means there’s a lot of crap! However, every now and then there comes a horror movie, usually independent, that threatens to break the paradigm of the horror genre. Robert Eggers’ The Witch may look like an ordinary horror movie, and in some ways, it is. However, Eggers focuses on the story over the scares, and the result is visceral though subdued horror and it’s got critics biting the apple!

I saw this movie twice this weekend. The first time I went to a fancy-dancy Arclight movie theater and saw the film with mostly older folks and the comment that stuck out to me was, “it was too real.” The second time I went to a modest Regency theater on a Saturday afternoon with a bunch of teenagers. A charming group of ladies behind me couldn’t hold back their opinions for more than ten minutes (why I prefer Netflix and Chill), and the comment that stuck out to me, this time, was “that was the weirdest most stupid movie ever.” Now I think that this says a great deal about this movie, but don’t take their words to heart. Audiences may be surprised when they realize that this movie isn’t made to make you jump out of your seat, but rather to sink deep into it. It is not a horror genre horror movie, don’t expect the usual jump scares or the cutting edge special effects or the high-concept monster make-up. The horror in the film The Witch, comes from the “evil” within all of us (is that cliché?).

The story is of a puritan pre-teen on the verge of womanhood, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family, when they leave their New England plantation after it is discovered that her father, William (Ralph Ineson), has been preaching the holy word differently from the church’s beliefs—and if you’ve ever sat in an American history class, you know that’s a big no-no. The family relocates and settles into a desolate open land in the middle of the woods struggling to harvest enough food for the winter. Then one day, while Thomasin plays peekaboo with her newest baby brother, the infant vanishes without any logical explanation.

Enter: The Witch.

Thomasin continually finds herself at the end of every mysterious disaster, and as the family tries to overcome these dreadful situations while remaining faithful to their God, they begin to realize that their faith may not protect them. The fear eventually consumes them and they turn to fear and hostility among themselves while the Witch ostensibly orchestrates every move.

What makes this film actually scary—aside from the macabre imagery and some of the deplorable acts committed by the Witch—is in the way the family reacts to the unknown, and that despite one’s efforts to be good in the eyes of God, we may still endure incredible suffering. The witch isn’t the scariest player in this game, she’s only secondary to God. The way it presents religion is one of the reasons The Satanic Temple has endorsed this film. Now, while the producers are hoping that this little fact will make you shit your pants, the truth is the activist group doesn’t believe in any supernatural forces, but they do believe that this film raises important conversations about the “contemporary religious experience.” It also depicts a disturbingly “real” family, and, in my opinion, family drama is where you find a terrifying human behavior. Add to that the fear of God and isolation, it’s definitely a crucible of anxiety. Which is why it’s not surprising that Eggers was able to successfully capture the hysteria similar to the Salem Witch Trials in the way that Arthur Miller did during McCarthy’s heyday. Incidentally, most of the terror come from what we don’t know, and never find out.

Set in the beautifully chilling American Frontier, Eggers said that a lot of inspiration for The Witch comes from Ingmar Bergman who is famous for creating high tension out of subtle moments. We can see this in uncomfortably tight shots on Thomasin or the goats, or the way it holds on disturbing moments for just a little too long. This is also evident in the dread that he creates from finely-woven conflicts between characters. It’s clear that Eggers wants to dig beneath the skin by luring his audience in and sedating them into an almost dream-like state in this film. He achieves this with an extremely detailed world. The language is authentic and that’s because the dialogue allegedly comes from actual documents during the 17th Century. It seems familiar, but it’s also plagued with unpredictability—which as a horror movie, is pretty impressive.

If you look at this story as a coming of age horror, this is more of a character-driven piece so you HAVE to have only great actors. In an interview, when asked about the language, Eggers said,

“… I was in a super fortunate situation of being able to cast whoever I wanted I didn’t have to look for a star to please, please, please help out this poor suffering indie movie. I only cast people who could do it. If you couldn’t do it, I wasn’t interested.”

Hopefully so, because some of the best horror movies tend to have the greatest child actors, or, at least, the scariest child actors… and this movie has four of them.  There was one scene in particular where I sort of cringed a tiny bit, but I was very impressed with the overall performance of the ensemble, including the four young actors. The mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), is excellent at creating intense vibes—like Thomasin, half the time I was afraid of her, the rest of the time I really wanted to like her. The young twins are great; their obnoxious childish behavior is SO absolutely unnerving juxtaposed to the stark reality that the rest of the characters are aware of. Most importantly, pretty much every character is given some juicy action which really allows us to empathize with them, making it all the more dreadful when things go very wrong.

The Witch is unapologetically slow, and even though it should be somewhat expected, I think it might lose some folks, though be not mistaken, it’s more like a suspension in dread. It’s also the kind of movie that will challenge you to think about things or feel things you might not want to. Where other genre horror movies skim the surface of these deeper issues, Eggers dives straight into them and what results is something disturbingly realistic. I won’t specify because that is part of the success of The Witch, it’s not a terribly scary movie on the surface, but if there is any shock value, it comes from the way it explores these uncomfortable circumstances and how familiar we already are with them. 

In spite of it not being the experience I expected from an overhyped promotion campaign, The Witch delivers an alternate journey through a story we think we already know, and at times, it almost feels like you’re standing naked and alone. I think this film will polarize its audiences but it definitely has something to say, and beneath the surface is plenty of substance—which I would prefer, on any day, over a vapid gore-fest with CGI demons. I think a vigilant audience can easily appreciate this movie, so kids, keep it in your pants and pay attention to this horror film, and you might even have nightmares.

Final Verdict: Watch It

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