"The Witch" premiered to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, with critical quotes providing unrestrained buildup, such as Stephen King saying it scared the hell out of him. Once it took the Best Director award at the festival, the hype accelerated. The movie is being marketed as the scariest horror film in decades, but modern horror fans are trained to expect something quite different than what "The Witch" delivers.
The story takes place in the 17th century, as a deeply pious man named William is banished from a New England plantation with his family for preaching the gospel in a way that was upsetting to the town's leaders. Along with his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas, they pack up and travel to a beautiful bit of land on the edge of a deep, dark forest. Some time later, they have built a house and a barn, planted crops and William and Katherine have a new baby, Samuel.
Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with Samuel and in the few seconds she closes her eyes, he disappears. The audience sees what Thomasin cannot, that an old crone in a cloak takes him into the woods and carves him up, bathing herself in his blood. The disappearance of Samuel destroys Katherine and causes the family to implode, quickly and quietly.
What "The Witch" excels at is creating a mood and tone that progressively becomes almost unbearably unsettling. Sadly, this isn't necessarily what modern audiences want from a horror movie anymore. Jump scares, loud musical cues and shocking gore effects primarily comprise the horror flicks that do well in the box office with movies such as "The Conjuring" and "Insidious" falling somewhere in between classy and popcorn.
"The Witch" is not going to frighten seasoned horror audiences. There is some incredibly disturbing imagery that lingers long after the closing credits roll, but "The Witch" is more psychodrama than horror movie. The script and direction shows Robert Eggers is much more interested in thematic resonance and history than in making people scream or drop their popcorn.
Even so, 17th century America is recreated with such precise and loving detail that it's hard not to be mesmerized just by watching these people exist, split wood or hunt in the woods, which becomes fascinating on its own. When the baby disappears and the twins start talking to the very creepy looking goat Black Phillip, it's hard not to start worrying for these people. Their Puritanical ways mean they are very susceptible to believing in Satan, witches and demons, adding to their paranoia about whether they can even trust their own family.
"The Witch" is almost an apologist film for the Salem Witch Trials. The movie threads a lingering question in "What if some of them really were witches dedicated to doing Lucifer's work?" Since there is no ambiguity about whether the family is just starving and paranoid or whether there are actually supernatural influences at work, most of the interesting discussions and arguments about "Satanic Panic" are taken away. Instead, we are left with a memorable, slightly disturbing folk tale. If this is how the film had been marketed, I doubt people would be disappointed.
When my screening ended, several people in the audience proclaimed how lame they thought the film was. The two people I came with both liked it much less than I did, with one complaining they thought it was boring and the other being disappointed it wasn't scarier. Though I agree the film isn't very scary, it held me enthralled for every second of its running time. That should be good enough, but in a time of marketing hyperbole, it's hard to have just an honest reaction to a well made, creepy little movie.
Dir. Robert Eggers
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