2016 was a pretty solid year for horror films, with major releases like Don’t Breathe and 10 Cloverfield Lane faring well with both audiences and critics. While many releases were sequels, prequels, or lazy reboots, there were several that ended up as genuinely scary films. Of course, not every release was a blockbuster, and there were plenty of hidden gems lying in the independent circuit. The Witch, distributed by A24 (Ex Machina, Swiss Army Man), is one of these, and many people simply haven’t heard of it. I’m not going to hide how much I like this movie. It fascinates me. I’m generally not much of a horror fan, but at the end of the day, a good movie is just a good movie.
The story takes place in 16th-century New England and follows a Puritan family of seven – two parents, a daughter, son, young twins, and an infant – who have recently been banished from a plantation settlement. Distressed, they set out blindly into the wild, in hopes of building a new home for themselves. When a witch from the nearby forest abducts their youngest, the mother of the family completely snaps, and the rest must try to survive in the untamed wilderness as their relationships and minds deteriorate further. As they grow more paranoid and even accuse the oldest daughter of witchcraft, they threaten to destroy themselves.
The pacing of this film has remained its most contentious quality among audiences since its release. The slow and deliberate pacing starkly contrasts the exciting scare-fests that more casual horror fans expect today. Instead, this movie is oppressively tense, refusing to break the mood that it builds at almost any point. What the pacing and atmosphere of this film are able to create is utterly horrifying. The witch herself is introduced to us in just about the most repulsive way possible, and from that point onward, the film essentially builds as an hour-and-a-half nightmare. Without the relief provided by unearned jump scares, the tension from these scenes builds mercilessly and doesn’t let up.
I also have to be sure to mention the acting in this film. Each member of the family, which serves as most of the cast of the movie, is thoroughly believable, from the parents to the young twins. While children in movies are with rare exceptions painfully hard to watch, both the child and adult actors in The Witch give convincing performances. This is a film featuring many relative unknowns who can remind us that a film doesn’t have to be helmed by A-list stars to be effective. In particular, lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy delivered a well-rounded and convincingly emotional performance; I’m excited to see where her career takes her over the next several years.
The characters’ mutual descent into madness is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining. Visually, they are both exquisitely constructed, though instead of the bright symmetry of the older film, The Witch presents itself visually in a sharp grayness of frank poverty, uncomfortable character closeups, and shrieking nature shots. Honestly, you’ll end up afraid of just about everyone and everything in the movie from the paranoia that the visuals help produce and the chilling score of period instruments and melismatic chanting help to fully bring out.
There’s a terribly vulnerable nakedness to the characters’ condition in their small homestead. Protected from the wilderness by a shabby split rail fence, the members of this family appear so cold and fragile. While the titular witch is the villain behind what happens to and between this family, the land around them is so oppressively ambivalent that it become a villain all its own.
The film is a surprisingly spiritual film. While Christian iconography is common in western horror films, The Witch is able to meaningfully incorporate otherwise cliche themes and imagery into its narrative. The characters are deeply religious, often praying and quoting scripture, though a good deal of drama and tension derives from how horribly they treat each other in the worst times. By rejecting the joy and forgiveness that is central to the Christian faith, this devout family allows for a very real and present evil to tear them apart. Each of these characters is fast to instruct the others to pray for forgiveness because they refuse to offer it to each other, and in the end, they all suffer horribly.
Beyond its strengths as a horror film, The Witch is an undeniable accomplishment of period filmmaking. From the characters’ way of life and view of the world to their immediately apparent costumes and speech, most elements of this film are placed and held believably within seventeenth century America. The dialog could have sounded contrived and artificial, and given the inexperience of many of the actors involved, I am impressed by how well it turned out.
Director Robert Eggers heavily researched speech, farming, religious attitudes, and more from the time period portrayed in order to authentically transport us there; his efforts paid off. I particularly appreciate his transformation of dialog produced by twentieth century actors into everyday speech of seventeenth century English expats. To my knowledge, the accent that the characters use in the film is accurate to what the English language sounded like at that time. The words used are also largely accurate; Eggers went as far as to incorporate records of actual alleged possessions and bewitchings from around that period in time into scenes in the film. The ease with which these lines fit the rest of the film is a testament to his efforts.
It’s a shame that because of this movie’s pacing and relatively understated scares I can’t recommend it to many horror enthusiasts, but that hardly takes away from its artistic quality. The Witch is a testament to what can be accomplished in a film conceived and driven by a passionate and skilled mind. It is proof that there is more to the horror genre today than Paranormal Activity 14 or whatever Blumhouse Productions is pumping out this month. Like the best horror films, it exists where fear and helplessness meet and holds you there with it until the screen has gone black.