There can, unfortunately, be degree of snootiness when it comes to horror films. People who think they know more will try to tell you that the slightly weird, unconventional films are the only worthwhile forms of horror, and that if you enjoy the types of film that draw in the masses (i.e. Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring), you’re not a real horror fan. That those films are just pandering and designed by studio heads who have no artistic intent but plenty of monetary greed. To quote Mark Kermode, “The Conjuring is a horror film for people who don’t like horror films”. It’s an argument which still makes no sense to me. Fair enough, there’s some terrible mass-marketed horror out there (as in any genre), but there’s also so much good stuff, and how is any film which draws people into the genre a bad thing?
In any case, The Witch has already drawn plenty of critical smooches for falling into that very category: it’s slightly weird, it’s slightly unconventional. It’s not what we would think of as a ‘regular’ horror film, for lack of a better phrase, in that it’s really more interesting than scary. For that reason, it’s probably been slightly mis-marketed. On the evidence of its unnerving trailer, we’re presented with what looks like a genuinely scary film about a family plagued by a witch in 16th century New England. It looks like something with, yes, mass appeal for horror fans; something that’s really going to frighten us. Actually, it’s a film with a fairly niche appeal. The Witch is a sinister folktale that’s all about atmosphere and suggestion, about being slow, talky and stagey, and withholding a visible threat from the audience in favour of an idea which slowly builds in our minds, allowing us to interpret the meaning and consequences.
And it works, if you let it. Just because it’s not a scare-a-minute picture with the odd jump doesn’t automatically make it better than everything else, but because it’s crafted so intriguingly and subtly with such effective performances, The Witch does stand out. It’s the type of film that leads you down a crooked path stretching into an endless void of darkness. We keep expecting, waiting, to be told what’s happening, to receive our scare and get it over with. But it never comes. By the final frame, we’re just left with a lingering sense of dread for what could be, not what is.
It’s not hard to see why Robert Eggers won best director at Sundance; the film is wickedly atmospheric. Eggers crafts it in such a way that makes us feel like we’re always on the precipice of evil, without overtly taking the plunge. He keeps us at arms length, despite the uncomfortably intimate nature of his shots, and using a grubby, square 1.66 frame, somehow enhances the authenticity of the already impressive production design. The aforementioned performances go a long way it helping that authenticity too, with young Harvey Scrimshaw in particular giving an enviable and unexpectedly layered performance as the eldest son, Caleb.
Taken for what it actually is and not what you might hope or expect it to be, The Witch is one of the most unsettling, unnerving and atmospheric films in recent memory. It won’t scare you in the way you’re accustomed. It will gradually crawl under your skin and stay there, leaving you a bit cold for long after.