“The Witch” is one of those movies. It’s one of those movies that divides audiences. It divides the group who actually enjoy seeing something different from the group who only say they do (this phenomenon will be the subject of a column, sometime in the future). And make no mistake, “The Witch” is not your traditional, conventional horror tale.
Loosely inspired by actual events in addition to a solid helping of folklore, “The Witch” never strives to placate the general audience. First-time director Robert Eggers did extensive research into the 17th century way of life, as well as the legends of the time period, in order to craft a piece of work that never feels anything less than authentic. What that means is that the film doesn’t stick to the typical Hollywood structure – certainly not for horror films. It plays out at a believable, natural pace, never shoehorning terrifying moments or jump scares into places they don’t belong just because that’s when an entitled audience expects or demands them. In fact, don’t expect jump scares, at all. This film doesn’t have them. This is art-house horror. It’s sophisticated, smart, mature, delicate, and it works, as long as you’re open-minded and have an attention span (more on that, later).
As I watched the film, I started making comparisons to, believe it or not, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. No, those similarities weren’t drawn in any way, whatsoever, due to the content of the films. But they were strikingly similar works in terms of structure. Both films rely heavily on dialogue to establish character and tone as well as to propel the story forward. Eggers clearly (and rightfully) subscribes to the oft-held belief that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. There is a lot here that we’re told about rather than shown. And it’s for the best. How many times have we been shown the source of terror in a horror movie, only to think, “That’s it? Well, that’s not as scary as I expected it to be.”? It happens, a lot, and I know you can think of several examples off the top of your head. So, rather than ruin any groundwork before it’s done being laid, a steady sense of dread and unease is built throughout the picture using dialogue, just like Basterds. And, also, just like that film, it leads to a powerful climax that resonates and leaves a lasting impression. In taking this approach, The Witch doesn’t aim to scare; it aims to disturb. And disturb, it does. That’s much more satisfying than any number of jump scares (though I have nothing against jump scares. They can be fun.).
If there’s one problem I have with the film, it’s that the 17th-century New England accents are so thick that, at times, they are difficult for me to understand. Truly, though, that’s my limitation, not the film’s. The cast does a wonderful job of replicating said accents and further immersing the audience in the period. I think this film may be a launching pad for Anya Taylor-Joy if the right people see it. She really gets a chance to shine and to demonstrate impressive range, in a moment’s notice ably switching from sweet and endearing to suspiciously frightening and doing it with ease. It’s truly a breakthrough performance.
That’s not to cast shade on the rest of the cast. Taylor-Joy gets the meatiest part, but everyone – even the children – get their moment(s) to shine and they all capitalize on them. I was fully convinced that they were born-and-bred Puritans and if I saw any of them walking around town, I’d have to take a moment to remind myself that they’re actors and that time travel has, sadly, not yet been invented. It isn’t just due to the accents, either. The full commitment of the entire cast to every scene almost makes the film feel like actual found footage (though it was not presented as a found-footage film) rather than a modern-day production.
In addition to all of this, The Witch is a complex, layered think-piece whose themes can just as easily apply to modern times as they do to the 1600s. It’s also the type of film to not talk down to the audience by explaining everything for them. In fact, I need to see it again in order to connect all of the dots, myself. And I love that. Don’t take that the wrong way; the film isn’t hard to understand or follow. But the connections between all of the events aren’t spelled out and require some thought and investigation. I’m anxious to check it out again, in the future, and fill in some of the minor gaps. A great film should encourage revisits and this one does.
I can’t finish, here, without mentioning a couple of things. First off, this film is formally endorsed by the Satanic Temple as a realistic representation of a true Satanic experience. (They also suggest that Ted Cruz becoming President could be very beneficial for them. I wish I disagreed with them on that point.) If that doesn’t lend some credibility to the legitimacy of the research and depiction of the events, then what else will?
I also find it interesting that the two best films of the year so far, this and Deadpool, were by first-time film directors. That suggests that new ideas from fresh faces should be nourished, both by studios and by audiences.
There are people who will say that The Witch is boring. They will be the people who zone out during extended dialogue or hate anything that doesn’t take place in modern-day America. Then, they’ll whine about sequels and remakes, claiming to want freshness from Hollywood, only to once again call the next fresh idea they encounter “boring” or “weird” or “stupid”. Welcome to the Age of the Internet, where nobody likes anything. We didn’t bring snacks because they all taste suck.
Well, the posers can kindly stay out of the theater and let the rest of us enjoy the freedom of art and expression that results in films like The Witch.
NOTABLE AUDIENCE MEMBERS:
After over an hour of build, the climax begins and, naturally, I see a woman four rows in front of me pull out her phone and light up the whole theater. She and the guy she was with come into the movie just as it’s beginning (usually a bad sign), sit down, and she immediately turns to the woman behind her, says that she had seen the film, the night before, and it’s terrific. She turns back around and immediately takes out her phone during the trailers, too.
I allow it during the trailers (even though that’s a no-no) and she puts it away by the time the movie begins. But when she turns it on – and keeps it on – during the film, itself, I get up, stomp down to her, and ask her to put it away. When I get to her, I can see that she’s shopping (!) and just taking her sweet time. After, all, she’s seen the movie, right? To her credit, she apologizes when I speak to her, puts the phone away, and doesn’t get it back out. I’ve had situations like that go worse.
But, people, listen to me. If you’re so much of a little twelve-year-old girl that you can’t stay off of your phone for a couple of hours and show proper respect to a storied art form as well as to the others around you who paid to appreciate that art form, then stay home, where nobody will give two armadillo colon polyps that your attention span is so low you have a bookmark to use for when you’re attempting to read tea leaves. If your need for attention and validation is so lacking that you can’t stay off of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram long enough to immerse yourself in a wondrous world of imagination, then there’s bound to be a loving mirror full of infatuation in your house that will look dead into your eyes until you collapse from dehydration, Narcissus.
But get out of the movie theater. And don’t come back.