The Witch (2016, USA/UK/Canada, d. Robert Eggers, 93 Minutes)
by Jesse Stringer
What does it take to make a horror film truly scary? In recent years, it seems that question has become more baffling to filmmakers and audiences alike as every year, we are bombarded with horror films produced by major studios that are loaded with cheap jump scares, bad acting, writing, directing; the list goes on. Thankfully, there are still a handful of filmmakers that know what true horror is. With recent films like The Babadook, The Conjuring, and It Follows, it’s looking like great suspense horror films are making a comeback; and director Robert Eggers only confirms this theory with his first feature film, The Witch.
The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where Robert Eggers even managed to win the Best Director prize, and over the last year has created nothing but great buzz. Now, it has been a little over a year since The Witch’s premiere and in all that time, it would be easy to over-hype it and possibly expect too much from it. But let’s just get right to it, this is a great film. The buzz is all true. And unlike other great horror films, this is the type of film that will disturb audiences on a level that might not please everyone. It’s a visceral depiction of a dark time in America’s history that pulls no punches and will likely leave audiences discussing it and thinking about it long after they’ve left the theater.
The Witch takes place in 1630 in New England (about 60 years before the Salem Witch Trials), and follows a puritan family as they leave their plantation to find a new home for themselves in the woods. As the months go by, sinister forces begin to take hold of the family both literally and psychologically. Right away, one is struck by the excellent production and costume design presented here. It really looks like someone took a camera into the early seventeenth century and hit record. Not just that, but the film’s dark tone is immediately present during the opening credits; and it never lets up until the final frame has cut away. The cast and crew did an incredible job immersing the audience into this world and really making it feel real.
For about 95% of this film, we follow a small company of characters all played by a wonderful cast of mostly unknown actors. Everyone in the cast gives a great performance but the stand outs here are from Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Thomasin, and Ralph Ineson, who plays the father of the family, William. Both of these actors helped bring that sense of realism to this story and delivered the old-english dialog very eloquently. Big things should be expected from the both of them in the future. Apart from their separate performances, the entire ensemble worked extremely well together and all gave believable performances that only make the film more frightening.
On top of that, The Witch is just very well made. It features beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke. He does an amazing job capturing the dark atmosphere of this film in every single shot using very muted colors and very bright grey light during the day scenes and dim moody lighting in the night scenes. Looking back, there really isn’t any use of handheld camera shots either. Most every shot is either locked down or slowly dollying and zooming only adding to the films foreboding sense of dread; and this is only amplified by the terrifying musical score by Mark Korven. And as mentioned before the general production design is just astonishing. It’s mind-blowing that a film made for only a million dollars manages to succeed in putting an audience in America nearly 400 years ago, and making it believable.
But the bleeding heart at the center of this film is writer/director Robert Eggers. The Witch is his first feature film and it doesn’t show at all. This is a brilliantly directed film with very slow building tension, truly terrifying scenes, and an unbelievable attention to detail. Eggers clearly cares about preserving the history presented here and making sure the film’s story is told properly. He apparently waited years just to get the proper funding for this film so he could make it as historically accurate as possible. When writing the script, he went through many historical documents, taking real phrases said by real people of the period and putting them together in a cohesive screenplay. That alone deserves a lot of respect. It is amazing to see a filmmaker who will stop at nothing to make sure his vision is not compromised. The Witch is obviously a very personal film to him.
But without knowing anything about Eggers or the production of the film, it is still immensely impressive at face value. The Witch doesn’t just serve as a great horror film but also as a really interesting study on the effects religion can have on the human psyche. The characters in this film go to great lengths just to serve their lord and savior, even when the forces of evil are tearing them apart. The Witch could also serve as a history lesson about seventeenth century America. The people of this period truly believed in witches and didn’t use the idea of them as a cautionary tale to keep their children from danger. And beyond all that, it is just a very disturbing film. There are a few scenes that will likely stay with audiences for weeks, even possibly years. The Witch leaves just enough to the imagination for one to develop their own frightening images in their head but also shows more than enough to increase that fear to a whole other level.
The Witch is truly a master class in the horror genre. It is not a typical horror film however. It is a slow burn with constant tension building throughout, and this may frustrate some audiences; but true horror fans are likely to relish in the world Robert Eggers has brought to the screen. It is not implausible to say this film may join the ranks of other classic horror films in years to come. It is taught, suspenseful, disturbing, and thought provoking. Although The Witch is a horror film at its core, it’s more appropriate to define it by it’s tagline, as a A New England Folk Tale.