The Witch and all the images you see in this review are owned by A24
Directed by Robert Eggers
It’s probably too soon to say we’re out of the New Year Doldrums just because this movie came out, especially considering it played the festival circuit throughout most of 2015, but whether or not this release can be used to determine a trend at the multiplexes, at least it’s something interesting to break up the mundanity and outright crappiness that we can usually expect for the first two or three months of the year. Does this movie deserve all the praise it’s been getting, or is this another overhyped festival darling that’s being release now because it couldn’t hack it during a better time in the mainstream circuit? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows a family of ultra-religious pilgrims who have voluntarily left the settlement to live on their own and practice their own brand of conservative Christianity in peace. Just to clear, these are the Puritans who thought the Puritans that left England to separate themselves from that sinful country were not pure enough for them. Clearly leaving them to their own devices is going to end well for everyone. Spoiler alert: It does not because not too long after William (the father played by Ralph Ineson) sets up their homestead just outside the woods, the baby son seems to have disappeared out of nowhere. What happened to him? Oh trust me. You will find out very quickly what happened to him. Needless to say that losing one of the kids does not sit well with either the parents (especially the mother played by Kate Dickle) or the baby’s siblings of which there are four (Thomasin played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Caleb played by Harvey Scrimshaw, and the twins Mercy and Jonas played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson). Now it’s clear to us that somewhere deep inside the woods is a witch, but the family hasn’t come to that conclusion yet and as things get stranger and stranger, they begin to suspect one another which only escalates conflicts and weakens their sense of morality which is easily replaced by fervor. Can this family get over the loss of their child and come together to hash out whatever differences they may have? Will the witch’s devious motivations become clear as her corrupting influence permeates though the unwelcomed guests? WHY IS THAT GOAT STARING AT ME!?
As far as horror goes, this movie is DAMN NEAR perfect in terms of sheer cinematic technique and genuine scares. It’s definitely a cinematic film in that the real star is the filmmaking itself and honestly, horror is a GREAT genre for that to be the case. A lot of movies that are style over substance tend to come across as obnoxious or underdeveloped. Despite the quality of the effects, gorgeous cinematography, or well executed soundtrack, it’s too easy to lose interest in all of that when the characters on screen aren’t doing anything to endear themselves to you as an audience member. In horror though, that can work because it’s one of the few genres that’s about the audience watching it rather than the narrative it’s telling. A horror movie does its job by provoking reactions and providing visceral thrills which can be conveyed through the way in which the filmmakers decided to craft the movie as much as it can through the drama on screen. I won’t say that this movie lacks depth, but it’s Mise-en-scène (I KNOW BIG WORDS) is what carries this movie and what will ultimately turn this into a classic for the genre. Are there flaws? Well there was at least one thing that bothered me throughout the movie (we’ll get to that), but in all honesty the movie is better than you can imagine and feels much more timeless than a lot of the other great horror movies we’ve gotten recently.
While the movie isn’t based on any specific account, the portrayal of witches in this follows a lot of tropes that we see from not only New England and English folklore. Hell, all you have to do is look at Witches by Hans Balgdung and you basically have everything you need to know about what kind of witches we’re dealing with in this movie. Now this does mean we run into some of those outdated tropes that demonized women and their sexuality (there’s even a seduction scene in here that’s unnerving as all hell) and the visage of the Old Hag is the movies main reference point, but the sheer power of the imagery used on screen as well as the strong thematic elements about religious extremism and idealistic morality undercut any negative consequences of using such imagery that we all know is outdated and primary used to subjugate women. That of course is my own opinion and I wouldn’t want to tell anyone they shouldn’t be offended if they find themselves annoyed by that aspect of this.
All that said, as much as it pulls from classical interpretations of witchcraft, what it pulls MORE from is classic horror films such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, both of which are about witches, and also some more recent fare like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist which isn’t OSTENSIBLY about witches, but is more about the evils of women in a general sense (or at least the SUSPECTED evils of women from the point of view of the Patriarchy). In fact, Antichrist MIGHT be the best comparison of the bunch because it’s not as surreal as something like Susperia and honestly has more to say about the evils of man rather than fear in the unknown which Antichrist has in abundance. Both are about the toxic and corrosive effects that guilt and grief can have on a person with this movie also having the angle about piety and religion used to instill fear rather than love or joy. One of the kids in particular is having dark thoughts that they are having trouble controlling but also can’t talk about due to the fear they have of revealing their sinful thoughts to their parents, which leads to repression and ultimately their downfall by the end. All these themes about unhealthy expectations people put upon one which leads to resentment and hypocrisy are fantastic and give the film dramatic weight, but it also leads us nicely into what my major problem with the movie is. It’s both a fantastic supernatural horror film when it comes to the witch elements, and it is also a superb psychological thriller as the family falls to pieces and begins to suspect one another for wrongdoings. What I don’t think the movie is great at is blending the two together into one movie, and there’s a bit of a disconnect between those two elements. I think this could have been resolved or at least improved in one of two ways. We could have gotten more scenes of the witch which would have provided much more scares and opportunities to revel in the utter darkness and depravity that this character lives in which I think is pretty self-explanatory how it would have improved things. I wouldn’t want this movie to go into outright camp, but two or three scenes of the witch directly causing harm feels a bit sparse. That’s not to criticize what we get or to say the scenes we do get aren’t incredibly effective or that they feel out of place. The movie does not fuck around as the first grotesque and horrifying glimpse of our antagonist doing horrible things uncomfortably close to the camera is within the first ten minutes. After that though, the witch is more of a presence that the other characters feel and more about inciting conflict between them rather than taking direct action.
Is that such a bad thing though? Having the antagonist not show off in front of the camera every five minutes like in a slasher movie means that we get to build suspense and focus on the interpersonal relationships between the main characters, right? Well yes, but that leads to my second solution for resolving this disconnect which is to not let the audience see the witch until much later in the movie. While this would have deprived us of some of the fantastic imagery until much later, I think that having the witch’s actions and identity be a secret would have helped the drama that was unfolding at the farm by not having the audience be one step ahead of the characters. We know right away that there is a witch out there doing heinous shit and that that person is responsible for a lot of the misfortune that befalls this family. The family however has no idea what’s going on and end up suspecting each other rather than a third party might be in the mix. These scenes are wonderfully executed with these relatively unknown actors doing an amazing job selling their emotions as well as the Olde Timey dialogue, but because we as an audience are well aware of what is happening, we’re looking at the situation as observers rather than being in the situation with them. This is one of the reasons why slasher movies are played up for thrills rather than genuine horror because we’re well aware of what’s going on and are just observing it rather than being placed in the characters’ fearful situation. The scenes that provide the most tension in here are when we see a character’s face slowly contort into horrifying realization and the camera absolutely refuses to let us as the audience see what their seeing for a solid five to ten seconds; giving us ample time to imagine what the hell is going on. Because the witch shows themselves so early in the movie, we don’t have that level of fear of the unknown as we know what the hell is going on. It’s odd that a movie this brutally intense in every aspect of its existence would provide this semblance of relief to the audience by giving us a leg up on the characters. Imagine if When a Stranger Calls was the exactly same movie, but we found out where the call was coming from at the beginning and not when the character does. Still, a complaint like that is akin to being upset at someone for only getting a ninety-eight on an exam. Considering how close this gets to perfection, it’s upsetting (somewhat irrationally so) when there are any flaws at all.
The last thing that needs to be mentioned is the ending of the movie. This is definitely going to be the biggest point of contention for a lot of people considering how… odd it gets, but I for one really loved it. Without a doubt it is laughable and silly as all hell, BUT it provides closure and doesn’t just cut off randomly for no good reason like too many horror films do. It’s rare that a movie in this genre not only has the decency to provide some sort of epilogue, but to be as risky as this ending was. It’s out there, it’s twisted, and it’ll probably make your laugh while still being taught, gripping, and uncomfortable. I thought it was great, but then I’m also the guy who felt there was a lacking of supernatural elements throughout the movie, so your millage with the conclusion will vary.
I haven’t seen movies like It Follows or The Babadook yet, both of which I hear are very good and I definitely need to get to at some point. Watching this however, felt like I was seeing more than just a good film, but a new benchmark in horror forming right in front of me. It must have been how it must have felt watching The Exorcist or Evil Dead when it originally came out and hopefully, given some time, this will become part of the great horror cannon as well. Maybe with a bit of hindsight I will feel that I’ve overrated this movie a bit (not sure how well it will hold up on second viewing), but it is easily the best movie that you can go see right now at the theaters and could potentially be best of the year material… even though it came out in 2015. Whatever! I’M STILL COUNTING IT FOR THIS YEAR!!
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