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The Witch
by Robert Eggers

Horror films, at least in this modern era, haven't been allowed to be seen by the general public as the respectable pieces of art they often are. It's fine to rightfully praise the B&W classics of the golden age of Universal but the masses have trouble giving credit to the genre in a current sense. This is even despite the growing popularity of horror elements. As Eli Roth pointed out, when a horror flick is in danger of actually being praised or awarded, the Oscar-types re-label under other pre-existing genres such as “Thrillers” or whatever other box they can put them in. Silence of the Lambs is a horror film. The Sixth Sense is a horror film. Alien (strictly the first one) is a horror film. But no one outside the horror community and, you know, the people who actually made the films, seem to think so.

Every once in a while, however, a film comes along that earns its deserved respect while reminding the rest of the world which genre brought it to them and what horror can do. I first saw the trailer for The Witch before Krampus and it instantly caught my attention. The following few months produced a response that let me know that this was a film to keep my eye on. Stephen King himself praised the film, saying it scared the hell out of him. When the master speaks up, you listen. After seeing the film I can safely say this is a project that deserves all the praise it has gotten. Here's why:

The Witch, also known as The VVitch and The VVitch: A New England Folktale, follows a family in 1630's New England who was recently banished from the community they were apart of for reasons not completely known. They end up making their own single-family existence in the middle of nowhere. I'm a native New Englander and this film made me glad I was born a good 350 years after the events because things are very bleak. The area is desolate and speaks to the poorness and dire situation of the family. This is aided by the wonderful cinematography and use of natural lighting to give the desired effect.

The clan consists of father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their kids. The children are comprised of two twins, a newborn, and an older boy and girl. The primary character is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a dutiful girl who cares for her family. She seems especially close to her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), or at least the events of the film draw them together. The film's story is kick-started when an innocent game of peek-a-boo with her infant sibling turns into a nightmare for Thomasin and her family. The infant disappears suddenly and it is implied that something or someone took it out to the woods. The family is devastated and after a fruitless search it is assumed that a wolf had somehow gotten hold of the poor baby. But as the events play out, it's made clear that there are far more sinister and vindictive powers at work.

To go too much into the details would be a grave disservice to those who still have yet to see the film. It is a step-by-step progression that requires the journey to be viewed a certain way. Tiny elements turn major and the film is quite delicately done, showing a deft hand from debut feature writer/director Robert Eggers. As Thomasin tries to navigate the extreme situation she finds herself in, balancing figuring out what is going on with hostility and accusations from her family, we are brought into her world of terror and mayhem all thanks to a mysterious character in the woods.

A lot of people may sell this film as a jump out of your seat, white-knuckling, watch-through-the-fingers type of film and for some it very well may be. I didn't see it this way, however. It wasn't so much about jump scares, as this type of demonic film often tends to be, but more about building tension so that every scene, no matter how seemingly innocent, is filled with so much that you feel just about anything can happen at any time. Whether a character is investigating something in the woods or simply talking to a family member, evil and danger are constantly in the air and the film does a phenomenal job of delivering that fear.

Everyone involved does an incredible job with their roles. The player that I previously recognized from a specific role was that of the mother character played by Kate Dickie best known for her role of Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones, the creepy woman who still breastfeeds her son despite his being far too old for that kind of thing. Obviously her character in The Witch is quite different in that, but the woman knows how to play into a creepy project. Her character's growing suspicion and anger towards her own child adds to the overall desperation of the film. Ralph Ineson also does exceptional work as the misguided and religious father, as does Harvey Scrimshow as the young son who takes it upon himself to try and fix things. Even the young twins are effectively acted characters. The center-stage and bulk of praise, however, is certainly reserved for Anya Taylor-Joy, whose role is the most emotionally challenging. She pulls it off, however, allowing herself to be equal parts brave, vulnerable, spiteful, and afraid. She has to be strong, and she is, but the events that unfold take her to places that any other person would rather not go. But for us horror fans, it's a delight to see the horror play out and she gives it her all every step of the way.

Given the theme of witchcraft, the film contains elements of Satanism that were apparently accurate enough to make the film supposedly endorsed by The Satanic Temple. This isn't to say the film is necessarily depicting any kind of religious or anti-religious affiliation, it simply uses these elements to present a specific story and how a certain set of characters are affected by the happenings. A lot of films utilize witches and Satan and sacrifices and the like in an over the top kind of way, which works for certain projects. This film, however, is pretty minimalist for the most part. It's often what you don't see that makes it so intense and when you are treated to something shocking and visible it really makes quite an impact. I love depraved movies that show you as much horribleness as possible but that's not what this project is about. It doesn't bombard the audience but more so allows itself to be a slow burn that has one hell of a payoff.

The Witch does certainly deliver on its title's promise, but is more about what comes from the witchcraft than anything else. The titular character serves more as a means to bring out terror rather than be a full-fledged standard antagonist. It's the mysterious events that play out that make the film what it is and the movie makes great use of Satanic elements rather than becoming a straight-up monster movie. I love monster movies, but The Witch focuses more on the human element of dealing with an unsettling, and at times chaotic, set of circumstances that the characters are faced with. Keep in mind, this all takes place a solid sixty years before the infamous Salem Witch trials, so the film mostly avoids what one might expect from a film about witchcraft in New England back in the 1600's.

This film made me wish that there were an option to see theatrical films with subtitles, even if they are not in a foreign language. This may sound like a criticism of the film but it isn't. The film utilizes authentic ways of speaking of the times and the acting is all intensely realistic, and the dialogue never feels theatrical or too blatantly “movie-like.” This works wonderfully as anything else would have detracted from a large part of what makes the film succeed. Very few films truly make me feel like I am watching events taking place back in time, but The Witch excels at this and perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the era in which it takes place. It is as if we are watching real people from hundreds of years ago interacting with one another. However, I do feel that some of the lines I may have missed were important and so I am interested in viewing the film again in a home-setting so that I can turn on subtitles and enjoy the realistic performances while still catching everything that the words present. The contrast of the strictly Christian characters with the full-on demonic happenings is a large element and it is a dynamic that feels unique and finds new ground in the concept.

I'm not going to spoil the ending at all, but I will say that I can't see too many people being disappointed. It all culminates in a way that compliments the film's tone and themes and left me at just the right moment. All in all I found myself impressed with what Robert Eggers accomplished, as well as everyone involved. This is a film that knew what it was doing and was luckily made by people who were skilled enough to make it the best it could be. I look forward to seeing what's next for Eggers as well as the exceptional cast. It's a spooky and downright unforgiving ride, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

P.J. Griffin, HMS

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