The Witch Review
I've been a huge horror fan my whole life. I even admit that I am little crazy at times. The first time I watched "The Ring" was by myself in an empty house, and it kept me up all night. I watched "The Grudge" and several other horror movies by myself. I can't really explain the thrill that comes from being scared, but I am sure other horror films can't really explain why being scared is so awesome and often cases, sacred to them. Its a different kind of high that you can't get from traveling or attending a concert or even jumping out of an airplane. Harry Knowles has defined movies as our dreams moving at 24 frames per second, and when a filmmaker sets out to make a nightmare at 24 frames per second, the results can be devastating.
The thing is, I haven't felt incredibly scared for a couple years now. It seems like most of the horror films that get released these days are found footage films, which to me are just a bunch of unprofessional actors getting scared of nothing. Or they are giant blood fests, which are referred to as torture porn. Nobody really tries to scare us anymore. But when something truly scary gets made, like "The Sacrament" or "The Babadook," its sent to Video-On-Demand or Netflix. It doesn't get the silver screen treatment and a real shot at the box office like it should.
"The Witch" debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and it generated quit a bit of buzz. It was something that was quickly sold and I was afraid that I would only get to see this in the comfort of my home for $9.99. Thankfully, this is getting a real shot at making some serious money, as it hit theaters this weekend. I am glad it did too, because "The Witch" is easily one of the creepiest and most disturbing films I have seen in quite awhile. It is full of uneasy mood and atmosphere, staples of a good horror movie, which I feel have been missing for too long. While there is blood in the movie, its not a relentless gore-fest like "Saw." Its also nowhere near found footage, and you will definitely not see actors being scared of absolutely nothing. This is a horror film that genuinely wants to scare you. I can't begin to explain how rare that is these days.
The movie is full of mostly unknown actors, and one of the faces you probably will recognize is Ralph Ineson. He's a English actor who played Amycus Carrow in the last few "Harry Potter" movies. You may have also have spotted him in "Guardians of the Galaxy." Ineson plays William, who at the beginning of the movie is accused of blasphemy by a Puritan court sometime in the early colonial years. William is a family man and a devout Christian, and he feels he has done no harm. Nonetheless, he is banished from his community, and he takes his family into the wilderness where they create a farm and a new life, isolated from any type of civilization. His eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the center of the movie. One day in her new home, she is playing peekaboo with her infant brother, until she opens her hands and finds he isn't there. What has happened to him? Thomasin's search for answers and how this disappearance affects the rest of her family, particularly her mother Katherine (Katie Dickey) is the basis for the movie.
The biggest shock of "The Witch" is the unforgettable performances by the children in the movie. Anya Taylor-Joy is a real discovery here, her face tells a thousand different emotions just with one look and she throws herself at every scene. As does Harvey Scrimshaw who plays Caleb, the slightly younger brother who has a rather gross obsession with his older sister. There is also Lucas Dawson and Ellie Granger who play young twins Mercy and Jonas. These twins are playing some very disturbing games with one of the family goats. Children have always been known to be a thing of horror in most films of the genre. But nothing can compare to what Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw are asked to do in this movie. I can't imagine what director Robert Eggers did to communicate what he wanted his young cast to do here. I am flat out shocked with what he got away with. How do you discuss these scenes with children? Were the parents involved and if so, what the hell did they think of all this? These were questions that were on my mind the whole time. The young cast seemed more than willing to jump into everything Eggers had planned for them, which made the experience even more upsetting.
Whats also unique about "The Witch" is how it plays like a nightmare, instead of a conventional movie. I know that this is quite the comparison, but I couldn't help but think of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" in some parts of the movie. Robert Eggers tip-toes between reality and supernatural terror, and you are never quite sure which end is up. The ending is very ambiguous and that may infuriate some and delight others. You can read certain scenes several different ways, which may anger those who like a more linear plot. But I think the film's style serves the proper function of the movie. I applaud Eggers' attention to detail, as the movie really feels like the early colonial time period and its that sense of realism that wraps you in the films hypnotic grasp. The movie is a slow burn, and I know lots of people who get impatient. But I would ask that you endure this. "The Witch" does a good job of setting up characters, mood and atmosphere. Sometimes that takes time and the payoff is some big disturbances I didn't see coming.
As I left the theater tonight, I heard lots of people say they liked the movie, and I heard just as many people say they wanted their money back. But most of the very best horror films are polarizing. "The Shining" was polarizing, Dario Argento's films were polarizing, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" from 1974 was polarizing. Those reactions show me that "The Witch" was trying really hard to provoke, to scare, to generate a reaction. Sometimes, that takes people off-guard, especially when they are so used to seeing the same old conventional crap that has been apart of the horror genre for years now. All I can say is that I want more horror films like this. I will take something like this over found footage any day of the week. I amazed by the films authentic style, the film even tells us during the credits that some of the dialogue was taken from historical transcripts of the time. "The Witch" is "The Crucible" on steroids. While its deeply disturbing, it tells a good story about religious crisis, about women and their purpose during the time, and early America's complicated history with witchcraft. The story sets up a wonderful backdrop for the horror that commences. That is so rare in horror nowadays that I couldn't help but hand myself over to this. So if you're curious, go. Take your friends. Discuss it with them afterwards. There will be plenty to talk about, plenty of meaning and reactions to certain scenes and the ending at large. I want this film to do well at the box office, so Hollywood takes a look it and sees how wrong they've been. This is the kind of horror film that should be overwhelming theaters in October.
FINAL GRADE: A