Warning: This review contains one spoiler, which is marked as such.
In this day and age, making a great horror movie proves to be difficult. Everything seems to have been done a hundred times over and many end up being more a less the same; then comes this. The Witch is a movie that I had been eagerly awaiting since its first trailer was released almost a year ago, in August of 2015; it honestly made me think of Scott Snyder’s comic book, Wytches, which intrigued me. Upon hearing of all the highly positive responses following its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, I could not wait to see it for myself. I was not entirely sure what to expect. I knew it wouldn’t be a ‘traditional’ modern horror flick and I gathered from the trailer that it would be slower and perhaps more subtle as far as scary movies go. The 17th century setting and sheer beauty of the environments along with what I saw of the direction intrigued me even more.
Here is the official synopsis and trailer:
In 1630 New England, panic and despair envelops a farmer, his wife and four of their children when youngest son Samuel suddenly vanishes. The family blames Thomasin, the oldest daughter who was watching the boy at the time of his disappearance. With suspicion and paranoia mounting, twin siblings Mercy and Jonas suspect Thomasin of witchcraft, testing the clan's faith, loyalty and love to one another.
I finally got to see it last night and it was almost everything I was hoping for. This is how I feel horror films should be. This movie is remarkably light in way of jump scares, gore and possessions. In fact, it’s much more “art-house” than “horror,” a deliberately slow paced, talky period piece. It surrounds you with a general sense of unease, less through slasher traits and more through its mood and tension. It is unclear throughout most of the film where it intends to go, but then... in the last 10 minutes, it hits you, hard. Don’t get me wrong, I love cheesy slasher horror flicks and I enjoy possession movies; a psycho killer and a group of naive teenagers can be very entertaining, mostly in a humorous way because of how bad they can be. It’s less often that we get movies like this nowadays, that don’t rely on gimmicky scares. In this respect, I enjoyed this similarly to how I enjoyed 2014’s The Babadook. The Witch focuses more on the psychological effects of its events on each of the family members and having them deal with it in their own ways. The film relies on screwing you over mentally, keeping you on edge and making you think. It feels a little like the type of scary story that you would tell around the campfire; it is subtitled 'A New England Folktale'.
All performances were superb, the movie stars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, (who you may recognize from HBO’s Game of Thrones) as parents William and Katherine, Anya Taylor-Joy in her first proper film role as oldest child Thomasin, Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the youngest children, twins, Mercy and Jonas. Supporting cast includes Julian Racings as the governor and Wahab Chaudhry with a very small physical appearance and with a voice that was honestly one of the most chilling things I’ve ever heard. Also, in two different but equally chilling appearances are Bathsheba Garbett and Sarah Stevens as two different ‘versions’ of the Witch.
That’s one thing I’d like to quickly address, we only see the witch 3 times in the entire movie, all for under a minute. I have seen many complaints about this across social media. For me, it was one of the best things about the film. I liked the fact that the witch was more a presence than an actual ‘monster.’ This movie was intended to be psychological and this was one of the things that really helped sell it as such. Referring again to The Babadook, which did much the same thing with its titular creature and got the same response from ‘casual’ movie goers.
Raph Ineson and Kate Dickie were both excellent. Katherine with her endless, helpless prayers and the grief that she shows throughout the film, first upon losing her youngest child and then everything that follows. It was a performance that really stood out for me. William, played by Raph Ineson, is supposed to be the fearless ‘man’ of the family but you could really feel his fear and worry whilst trying to maintain that front.
I have to give special mention to the children of the movie, especially Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw. Taylor-Joy’s character, Thomasin is accused of witchcraft and being the cause of all the horrible things that are happening; you really feel a sense of helplessness whilst her own family is turning against her. The young actress is already getting offered bigger film roles and rightfully so, I am looking forward to seeing what she does next. As for Harvey Scrimshaw,
The stand out scene for Caleb was his proclaiming of his love to Christ before his death. It was just so passionate and believable, perfectly mimicking the insanity of the situation and the effects of his encounter with the witch.
Yep, it's an extraordinarily bad time for this family.
The twins were great, also. Children in horror movies are creepy no matter what they’re doing. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson played the scared, naive and curious infants perfectly. I also have to give a mention to that goat. Seriously, it was just something about him, how he stood, how he moved, that made me uncomfortable. Is there such an Oscar category as 'Animal performance'? Props to his handler!
The movie was written and directed by Robert Eggers in his directional debut. It’s clear that this man has talent and I am very much looking forward to his future movies; his next is reported to be a remake of the 1922 silent horror, Nosferatu. His love and fascination of witchcraft is clear; the cinematography is beautiful and the scenery breathtaking. The movie used zero CGI, at least none that I could tell, and no CGI gave it a very raw feel, which added to the overall atmosphere. It’s like comparing the original 1976 Carrie to the remake with Chloe Grace Moretz; which one is scarier, honestly? As far as the script goes, it’s beautiful and tragic, almost Shakespearean. It actually really reminded me of Macbeth, this may also be swayed by the fact that the film’s dialogue is in an early (but perfectly understandable) form of modern English. The majority of the film only sees 5 actors and only has 3 or 4 locations, mostly being in and around the family’s farm, and the forest. It all feels very theatrical.
The films score is by composer Mark Korven. Music can really add to a film and can just as easily take away. The soundtrack uses a mix of chilling tunes and loud, sharp sounds with some particularly frightening vocals. Fact Magazine reported:
Tightening the film’s tension to the extreme is composer Mark Korven’s hellish score. Rejecting electronics, the soundtrack builds its terrifying atmosphere from unconventional acoustic instruments, including a waterphone, and unique uses of more conventional ones — much the score’s percussion was made by “abusing a cello”, as its composer puts it.
And it worked beautifully.
Even though I have praised the heck out of this film, it isn’t going to appeal to everybody. If you’re a fan of horrors like Friday the 13th, Halloween or modern possession movies, make sure you know what you're getting into; do not go into this expecting jumpy frights or action. Whether it was intended to be or not, this is an art film. Along with everything I previously mentioned, the story pacing is slow and it focuses more on building dread and discomfort than flat out ‘scaring’ you. If you appreciate film making on a technical level then you should get a kick out of this. It’s beautifully directed and acted, the cinematography is superb and boasts genuine discomfort with a perfect ending. This is my favourite movie of the year so far and might just be one of my favourites ever. I’m definitely going to be watching this again; and again and probably another time after that. It shows that you don’t need a big budget, fancy effects or even a large cast to make something brilliant. Congratulations to all involved, this is film making at its finest!
What did you think of The Witch? Let me know!