The Witch (2016) Review

Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

(Originally written for Youtube Feb 20 2016)

The Witch is the latest horror movie critical darling to hit theaters, but follows a very different path than other recent scary movies like Babadook or It Follows. And, while it’s very possible to read a lot a metaphor in this movie, a la those other two, or even other well-known Witch stories like Rosemary’s Baby or The Crucible; The Witch is played much more straight than either of those. It’s the simple story of a family in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s an honest-to-God, Satan-worshipping baby-eating witch in the woods.

Our story concerns a New-England pilgrim family being exiled from their village because the gravelly-voiced patriarch, William, played by Ralph Ineson, is too pious even for Puritans; and he; his wife, Katherine; his budding eldest daughter, Thomasin, played by the doe-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy; her younger brother, Caleb; their younger twins, and the newborn start a small homestead on the edge of the woods. The local witch stealing and brutalizing the baby is only the start of their troubles as the Witch slowly tears this family apart. The crops won’t grow, each member starts accusing one-another of damning their family, and the twins believe that the family’s goat, Black Phillip, is talking to them.

There is a lot to unpack between the family: William’s inability to provide, Katherine’s homesickness, Caleb’s sexual confusion towards his sister, and the general fear of sex and overwhelming guilt that comes with Puritanism, and is especially hard on Thomasin. But while other stories might run entirely on the fuel of those metaphors; The Witch derives almost all of its dread from the horror of being isolated in the woods, and preyed on by a Witch. These characters aren’t afraid because their religion has made them unfit to cope with a changing world; they’re afraid because all of their deeply held beliefs happen to be completely accurate, and there really is a witch in the woods.

And, as silly as a simple ghost story might appear in today’s post-modern world, The Witch completely sells that literal fear of facing an omni-present, demonically powered servant of Satan. “Dread” really is the aesthetic this movie is sold on, and it builds it perfectly. A slow burn of lingering shots of impenetrable walls of trees, naturally or candle-lit spaces, and background obscuring close ups will drive you to check between every branch and under every shadow for the presence of the Witch. In place of jump-scares, The Witch trades on tension and anticipation, and because of that, the few omens the film does give you, including a bunny, of all things, are as effective at making your heart skip a beat as a door slamming would be in any other horror movie. There are no sudden movements, or surprise cuts, or scare chords; just very deliberately creeping cinematography and audio production that slowly draws out the fear we all of have being alone in the woods.

And yet, I can totally understand how The Witch is not a film for everybody, not even all die-hard horror fans. This is not a movie that tells you when to be afraid or brace for impact. It’s not a movie that tries to catch you off guard or trick you into being scared of it. The Witch asks you to be afraid because it’s stuck this family in a spooky woods, because they’re scared and alone, and because they’re doomed. And if you’re on this movie’s wavelength, that in itself is the most terrifying thing in the world.