There has been a lot of dark moments in America’s history but the phenomenon that doesn’t get talked about a lot are the witch trials, most famous of them were the Salem Witch Trials. This was a time when English settlers were still colonizing the east coast of the United States. It makes a lot of sense for the settlers to be worried about going deep into the thick forest. Combine that notion with the fear of witches, then you have a deeply rooted paranoia.
In 1630, a family moves out of their settlement due to a disagreement with the church and build their own house and farming land far outside their walls. The family is nestled right next to the brooding woods; which the father William (Ralph Ineson) and mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) warn their daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and twins Mercy & Jonas to never step foot in.
One afternoon, while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her newborn sibling, the baby suddenly vanishes, but the family all believe it to be a coyote that took the child. Katherine goes into depression, William and Caleb take too action and sneak off into the woods, and Thomasin is suspected of witchcraft by her twin siblings. The families faith in God & loyalty to one another is tested, while evil lurks closely among them meticulously working to divide the family apart.
Writer and Director, Robert Eggers gives cinema a breath of fresh air in the genre of horror with The Witch. It brings a familiar topic of religion and how far one can be emotionally invested in it, but brings us back to the 1600s were this was a normality for the people of that time. The paranoia of evil & fear of God reigns supreme in this film which is why it becomes so compelling. Early on you become aware that there is indeed terrible things lurking in the woods, but due to the film’s slow burn; the viewer develops a form of dramatic irony over the family. This is essential because you see the true nature of humans being tested emotionally as well as spiritually. The father here appears to be close to God but as the film progresses, he lets his sin get the best of him, and also struggles to deal with the evil that has been cast over his children.
Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke take there time to linger in the woods with a lot of natural light employed, or in the claustrophobic candlelit cabin. The look of the movie is beneficial due to all the natural lighting, and nothing ever appears glammed up; there are shadows everywhere which is fitting to the films dark nature. The film is only an hour and thirty-two minutes long, and surprisingly it does feel longer than that. A harsh criticism of this film is in relation to the time but mainly that it’s “long and boring” or not “scary”. I can understand where they are coming from because this film could definitely benefit from a few jump scares, or more riveting scenes, but overall I felt satisfied with everything because it felt realistic. Films don’t necessarily have to be realistic but employing a load of jump scares into this movie would have made it conventional, and not allow it to stand out as art, but just another okay scary film that would end up being forgotten. The people who think this are not “dumb” or “too stupid to recognize art” as some critics are calling them, but simply, horror films especially recently have been using a lot of jump scares, unfortunately most of the time cheaply. Similar to how the pacing of films have changed over the years.
An interesting thing about this film asides from the Satanic Temple endorsing the film, is how it has been divided between critics and viewers. Usually a film like this would recieve a huge following from viewers who love it, and relate it to The Shining, but oddly enough, the critics love it, and viewers are divided on the film. The critics are calling it terrifying and fully believe that it’s something we shouldn’t be watching as if this film was voyeurism. The response I’ve seen from some viewers are that “it’s heading in the right direction, but isn’t scary enough” all the way to “it’s boring and nothing happens”. A universal agreement that can be made is that the acting is not a problem at all, especially coming from the compelling character William played by Ralph Ineson. He carries the film on his back with his performance ranging through a whole load of emotions. This film could easily be adapted into a play if they ever wanted to chose that format. Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Kate Dickie (Katherine), and Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb) give solid performances too. Another interesting thing, is that the filmmakers said the dialogue was based on the writings from that time.
The goat was deeply creepy in this film, and apparently Eggers had more in mind for Black Philip but the goat wasn’t trained enough. Well I hope someone gives this goat some more acting classes because he’s a natural! Another great thing about this film was change in tone at the end of the film which was profoundly sinister and executed exquisitely. However all of these satanic notions could have been more focused on in the film asides from Black Philips influence on the twins, and then that definitely could have improved the film on being more scary.
**End Minor Spoilers**
Overall, The Witch is a unique film for the time is was released. Opting to shoot in a traditional aspect ratio of 1:1.66, a slow burn to the climax, and even choosing to shoot the film in a distant but oddly familiar time. This makes for the film to have a classic feel to it, and should allow it to age well through the years. It was already on Criterion’s radar upon it’s release, so maybe we’ll get a release from them. While it definitely could have been scarier, Eggers and crew create a great atmospheric film on a subject that can and should be further explored by more filmmakers.
My Rating: ★★★★ / ★★★★★
Dir. Robert Eggers
IMDb 7.3/10 – Rotten Tomatoes 90%
“I conjure thee to speak to me”