Movie Reviews: 'The Witch'

By Josh Melo

The Witch (Review)

More period drama than traditional horror film, The Witch successfully creates a compellingly spooky narrative while invoking techniques from some of the best films in the genre. Though, if pure fright is what you’re looking for, The Witch may not be the film you expect. A satisfyingly creepy atmosphere permeates the entire film, but full on scares are hard to come by.

Taking place in 17th Century New England, The Witch follows an exiled Puritan family in their attempt at living an isolated rural life. Banished to the outskirts of a sinister wood, William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Katie Dickie), Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) must learn to live off of the land despite their inexperience and the threat of winter approaching.

As things seem to finally be going the way of the poor family, odd things begin to happen around the homestead. The family’s youngest child mysteriously vanishes, the crops suddenly fail and William, along with his eldest son Caleb, are forced to try their hand at hunting, despite the swirling rumors of an evil force lurking somewhere in the forest depths. Tension amongst the family members continues to thicken, leading to more and more disturbing goings on. With all of these strange events circulating the family, audiences are asked: are all of these occurrences of their own doing, brought into existence through their perpetual anxiety? Or has some malicious entity slithered its way out of the wood and into these people’s lives?

Written and directed by Robert Eggers (his feature film debut), The Witch maintains and eerie and ominous atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat but never pushes things far enough to get you out of them. Thanks in large part to Mark Korven’s exceptionally unnerving score and the authentic 1600’s look and feel (all dialogue is spoken in archaic English); The Witch builds an incredibly grounded world in which these hair-raising events unfold. The spooky atmosphere even finds its way into the quieter, more dramatic moments. Whether it is an intimate conversation between father and son, or a playful sequence featuring the children, the feeling that someone or something is out there watching never leaves your side. While it is a feat unto itself that the film manages to be so unnerving without relying too closely on tired genre clichés (not a single jump scare to be had here), it never makes the transition into full on terrifying. While the final scenes of the picture ramp things up considerably, it’s still not enough for me to consider it a horror film. As previously stated, The Witch is more creepy period thriller than horror picture.

Egger’s script combines an absorbing coming of age tale with an examination of blind faith (religious or otherwise). The film comments on unflinching devotion, no matter the cause, and the potential dangers that can accompany it. William’s inability to look beyond his religious upbringing got his family banished in the first place, so to see his continued pride become the undoing of his entire clan made thematic sense. Thomasin’s development throughout the tale was a fitting parallel. Surprisingly timely, Anya Taylor-Joy’s character arc of a youth outgrowing the ideals of the family and forging her own path was some of the most compelling narrative throughout the picture, and that includes recluse baby snatching bag ladies hiding in the forest. In addition to her character work, Taylor-Joy herself stands out as the films rising star. Plucked from obscurity, it isn’t hard to imagine The Witch kick starting a healthy film career for the actress.

Outside of William and Thomasin, the rest of the family tends to fall to the wayside. With little in the way of development for the rest of the marked family, the children and mother become used simply as plot devices or obstacles for the featured characters. Katie Dickie in particular channels her Game of Thrones character a bit too much in her portrayal of the grief stricken Katherine (at times I felt that Lysa Arryn had somehow survived her fall through the moon door only to end up a crazy wife to a lowly townsmen of the Vale).

For all the times I’ve used a synonym of creepy, I’ve yet to use any form of terrifying in attribution to The Witch. And in that lies the films one major flaw. Despite maintaining a consistently eerie tone, the lack of true scares keeps the film from elevating beyond really good (which is still really good). Near the end of the proceedings the action and stakes are considerably more “horror” but tend to clash with the rest of the grounded story. While a fitting thematic end to Thomasin’s story, the final sequence borderlines parody. It isn’t enough to undermine the rest of the movie but it is one of the few times you can tell the film was a directorial debut.

The Witch sports a solid ensemble cast, an enthrallingly authentic 1600’s narrative and a satisfyingly spooky ambience. But it’s the films inability to break into truly frightening territory that keeps it from reaching greatness. While there is a ton to like about The Witch, truly devout horror fans may walk away disappointed by its lack of scares.

Overall, The Witch gets a 7.5/10.