At a mid-17th century British settlement in New England, a family is banished because of the father’s deeply held religious beliefs and how they clash with the town elders. William (Ralph Ineson) takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children with all their belongings on the back of a horse-drawn cart into the wilderness to start anew. Finding a suitable plot of level ground near a stream, the family builds a small house, barn and stable and plants a crop of corn. While watching her baby brother Sam, eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing a game of peek-a-boo when a witch (Bathsheba Garnett) who lives in the nearby woods takes the boy and uses his blood to bathe in. Thomasin didn’t see the witch take Sam and believes he was snatched up by a wolf. On top of this loss, their corn is struck with blight and doesn’t produce enough to hold them through the winter. Katherine begins to believe the family is cursed. William takes oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) out on a secret hunt into the woods as Katherine believes them to be haunted. There they check traps William had already set but find them empty. Later, Caleb and Thomasin secretly go out to check the traps again but get separated. Caleb stumbles upon the home of the witch and she appears to him as a beautiful woman. They kiss but it’s a trap and Caleb goes missing. Thomasin stumbles home and is questioned about where she and Caleb went. Being evasive with her answers leads Katherine to believe Thomasin might be a witch and responsible for the calamity that has befallen them.
Anyone heading to see “The Witch” expecting it to be a standard horror flick will be in for a surprise. Whether that’s a pleasant or unpleasant surprise depends on your willingness to accept the movie for what it is. I have yet to piece together exactly what I believe “The Witch” to be for myself. I can tell you what it isn’t: It’s not like anything you’ve seen in recent memory.
In a title card that comes up in the closing credits we learn much of the dialog for the film was taken from journals, newspaper accounts and trial transcripts from the time. The language of “The Witch” can be a bit difficult to follow as it is undiluted Olde English. Careful attention will find the viewer being able to figure out the meaning if not the exact words used in a scene.
Understanding what’s going on in some of these scenes is due largely to an extremely talented cast of largely unknowns. These actors are committed to bringing life and emotion to these characters. Ralph Inesdon, Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Dickie are the backbone of this troupe and they deliver performances that are riveting. The tone and cadence of Ineson’s speaking voice is nearly melodic. His gravely bass voice adds an air or legitimacy and gravitas to his words. Kate Dickie is capable of running the gamut from loving mother to shrieking shrew and making each extreme believable. Anya Taylor-Joy is an angelic beauty. Her wide-eyed innocence makes the events that swirl around her seem especially unfair. We side with Thomasin as she faces unfounded allegations, wanting her to break free and suddenly be transported to a place and time where she can live in peace. The entire cast does an amazing job at making us both love and hate them as they try to survive.
Living in a time and under conditions none of us could imagine, this family must work together and constantly put aside thoughts of self. None of the players is shown in the best light or wearing the nicest clothes. This is a time of drudgery, of hard work and no guarantee of survival. Once they are banished, any meager support they might have had from their community is gone. There is no market just down the street and no doctor. The actors and the setting combine to give the movie a feeling of isolation that makes the growing paranoia amongst the adults almost understandable.
Despite all that’s right with the movie, “The Witch” still fails to do what any good horror film should and that’s scare the audience. While I enjoyed the history lesson, the efforts of the actors, the production design, the soundtrack and the film as a whole, it has no scares. It effectively builds tension with discordant music and sudden blackouts but never delivers the kind of scare today’s modern horror audience craves. While there are moments when seeing a shadowy figure standing in the woods as a character walks by oblivious seemed appropriate or even necessary, none of these moments or any other Horror Movie 101 events occur. Director and writer Robert Eggers appears to believe a spooky atmosphere and the occasional glimpse of a naked old woman is frightening enough; however, it isn’t. Eggers probably believes the horror is the paranoia and religious fundamentalism of the mother and father and how they begin to suspect Thomasin is witch and plan to have her tried back at the village. This is certainly horrifying in its own way but doesn’t lead to a quickening of the pulse or the gripping of the arms of your theatre chair. That’s more akin to hearing a political candidate make promises in a speech that are clearly unconstitutional and hearing his audience cheer.
“The Witch” is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity. Much of the more gory violence occurs in shadow and is suggested rather than shown; however, we do see the witch stirring up a red, chunky mixture that we assume is the remains of the baby then bathing herself and a stick with the substance. A man is gored to death by an animal. A character is stabbed to death. A character is picked at by a crow, drawing blood. We see the witch, again obscured mostly by shadow, fully nude. There is a ring of nude women dancing around a fire. There is no foul language.
The frightening parts of “The Witch” are mostly psychological. The longer the family is separated from not only the village but from their roots in England, the more they begin to turn on each other. Initially finding strength in their faith, it is turned into a weapon to explain their situation and place blame where it doesn’t belong. While the witch of the title is ultimately responsible for this family’s doom, they have been coming apart at the seams for a while. I’m sure the filmmakers probably want “The Witch” to be viewed as more of an allegory for modern life and allowing fear to turn us against each other. In that sense the movie is a success. As a horror film, “The Witch” is mostly interesting to watch but doesn’t provide any memorable scares. While there are things that go bump in the night, they are metaphors for racism and power-hungry politicians. While scary, it’s not what most people are looking for in a horror movie.