If you're a fan of the Horror genre, you are probably aware that it's difficult to make a great horror film. To the average viewer it would appear that the solid elements of a horror film are gore, jump scares, and jarring sound cues. While that appears to be the trend in modern horror, it is by no means what makes a great film. Solid, truly terrifying horror exists when you play on the emotions of the viewer so they feel uneasy and anxious. The element of true fear isn't just because a loud noise that make someone jump or scream. The true element comes from having something so mysterious and so dark that you fear what you don't understand and even what you can't see. This is important to know because it's exactly what was given to us with The Witch.
What exactly is The Witch about?
The Witch serves as the film debut of writer/director Robert Eggers and it tells the story of a New England family as they struggle to follow Christ and survive after voluntarily leaving a plantation colony. After the family is dismissed from the plantation colony, they relocate to an isolated farm on the edge of the woods. Just before winter, the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is playing with her infant brother Samuel when he suddenly vanishes without a trace. Despite the father believing a wolf took the child, we are given a glimpse of the film's somewhat invisible antagonist with the child doing a rather unspeakable act. If you have any knowledge of witchcraft and its practice of sacrifice, you should be able to guess what we are shown on the screen.
In the wake of the disappearance of Samuel, the mother (Katherine) struggles to maintain her faith in God while the father (William) struggles with his pride and decision to remove his family from the plantation. Furthermore, Thomasin's brother, Caleb, fights his wandering eyes and lust for his sister's budding womanhood while the youngest children, Mercy and Jonas, claim they can speak to their horned goat, Black Phillip. Not only do they speak to him, but they claim he has told them the details and nature of their eldest sister's wickedness.
How is The Witch different?
It is important to remember that this film is set in the year 1630. You would assume the time frame puts us smack in the middle of witch persecution, but it actually is dated 62 years before the Salem Witch Trials. although witchcraft was known to the colonists, it wasn't quite to the point of mass persecution so don't think you'll be seeing witches burned at the stake.
I mention this because I have seen on the internet, and have had conversations among my friends, that people who haven't seen this film assume it's another shock value witch film. It's already been compared to the likes of Lords of Salem, The Witches, and even the Salem television show on WGN America. I cannot emphasize enough that these comparisons are completely misguided and false. Comparisons and accusations so false it's almost painful to hear people make say them.
First of all, The Witch does not depend on shock value to carry out the story. I have seen Lords of Salem and while I don't completely hate Rob Zombie's film efforts, it was rather disgusting and is my least favorite film he's released so far. It counted on stereotypical witchcraft practices, shock value, language, graphic nudity, and somewhat overwhelming sexual content. The Witch does contain nudity, but it does not depend on foul language, graphic sexuality, or graphic violence to scare the audience. You are left feeling unsettled by the minimalist style and about mystery of the actual witch coven in the woods.
Accordingly, this film is most easily compared to a film like The Shining. As you watch these characters struggle with their own personal questions and with the meaning and faith in God, you are left not really knowing where the story will go next. What is the next question Katherine will ask? What will Thomasin say next to try and convince her parents she isn't wicked? What is it luring them into the woods? The truth is as you're watching, and even after you watch, you really have no idea and that's the creepiest part about this film.
I won't go as far to say that The Witch is one of the scariest films ever made because it's not. However, it is very unsettling and it definitely leaves an impact on you after watching. The music cues were executed well as they vary from soft to increasingly louder and longer as the story becomes more intense. The cinematography also plays on your eyes a bit as Eggers exercises varied cuts and shot lengths to trick the viewers into thinking something will happen and when it doesn't, you're still left to carry that tension onto the next scene. This is something James Wan did in The Conjuring and I loved it then just as much as I do now.
What this film did correctly is it utilized the true elements of a horror film that a majority of modern horror films have forgotten. It seems like most films in the genre just go through the stereotypes of what horror should be instead of actually trying to scare the audience. For me personally, the scariest and most unsettling films are ones that play with your mind and your emotions. It's not about how many jump scares you can deliver, how many limbs can be chopped off, or how many gallons of fake blood you use. It's about how your viewers feel when they walk out of the theater. Judging from the way I felt, I have to applaud Robert Eggers for the attempt. I hope The Witch is a sign of better things to come for the horror genre because we desperately need it.