To say that The Witch was hyped up would be an understatement. Many film fans, myself included, were excited for the new horror film directed by first time director, Robert Eggers. The return to slow-burn horror combined with its critical acclaim, including a Best Director award for Eggers at last year's Sundance Film Festival and an 88% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, all made me beyond excited for the movie. Sadly, The Witch doesn't live up to its lofty goals.
The Witch is about a family of a mother, father, three sons, and two daughters who have come over to America from England during the 1630s. For vague reasons, the father is put in front of a court and banished from the community of settlers, forced to take his family out into the woods. Once there, the family begins to encounter strange and often disturbing occurrences that shake them to the core of their Christian beliefs.
As said before, The Witch is a very slow burn. Much in the vein of such films as The Shining and House of the Devil, it takes its time attempting to build up feelings of dread for the woods around the family and how isolated they are from their former community. The biggest issue however, is that Eggers rarely utilizes the slow burn to develop any of the characters or build up any sense of mystery. And more-so, the slow burn never amounts to much of a pay off.
The titular witch is revealed very shortly into the film, nullifying any idea of mystery or questioning the sanity of the family. She is revealed a total of three times and only on one of those occasions was she at all deem-ably scary. Eggers appears to have cared less about making any mystique around whether or not the witch exists and instead chose on making his film seem more realistic.
Many subplots that are introduced, including a bizarre incestuous one, are thrown to the side and never developed in the later portions of the movie. Characters are often speaking in mumbled Old English dialect with accents so thick a large portion of dialogue was completely lost on me. In a film such as this, the dialogue and characters are your most important weapon, and I honestly couldn't understand half of what they were saying.
However, the film still has many positives. The acting across the board was superb, especially from the obvious break-out star Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin who has to go through a wide range as well as being one of the few characters with a genuine arc. The suspicious younger twin brother and sister of Thomasin nearly stole the entire movie from her. Their performances came off as incredibly natural. Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb also brought one of the more disturbing performances of the cast.
The production design on such a low budget cannot be overlooked. As a 1600s period piece, Eggers absolutely nailed it. From costumes to set design to props, everything looks and feels real. Not once do you feel like you're watching low budget fare, all the money is on the screen. As a director, Eggers clearly has a talent for building a lived-in world, all the more impressive with the film on a shoestring budget.
Sadly, The Witch failed to bring any of the major scares that were promised by its well-cut trailer. Only once while watching did I feel any form of dread come over me, and during the time spent with the family I rarely found myself caring for any of the characters. Still, it represents a major leap forward in independent horror cinema, and regardless of what I thought, I still look forward to whatever Eggers will deliver next.