For the third year straight year a horror movie has made the festival rounds and has received rave reviews from self-proclaimed non-horror fans. In 2014 it was The Babadook. In 2015 it was It Follows. In 2016 we have The Witch. I consider myself lucky in that I was able to avoid trailers for any of these films (which I was shockingly able to accomplish without even trying too hard). However, it was impossible to ignore the hype they all got. Even with that hype, The Babadook and It Follows exceeded my expectations. I went into The Witch hoping for the same experience. Going in, the only thing I knew about it was that it was “terrifying.”
I feel like I should have a lot of smart things to say about this film. It is set in 17th century New England and it uses a lot of authentic language and accents. Some of the dialogue is actually taken directly from journals written during that time period. It is a dark film, both figuratively and literally: many shots are only provided the light of a candle. It sets a mood that is authentic to the time period, but it also allows for lots of dark corners for things to hide. This is not the kind of film that has things jumping out from dark corners, but that doesn’t mean something isn’t there, silently peering from the darkness.
Perhaps that’s part of why I feel like I should have smart things to say. Robert Eggers – the director – put a lot of research and care into this film. Every shot is a work of art. I was drawn in from the opening scene. Watching this in the theater was a truly immersive experience, and the rest of my theater seemed to feel the same way, as I barely heard any noise throughout the entire film. Or maybe they were asleep. It was impossible to tell.
Now let’s get back to the one word review I kept hearing uttered in hushed tones: “terrifying.” It was always spoken as if the person saying it had been hiding beneath a blanket for months, but felt the need to emerge to utter this declaration of warning.
Maybe it’s because I have seen a lot of horror movies, but I did not find this to be terrifying. I did, however, find it to be deeply unsettling. Long after the final image left the screen, I sat in my chair staring at the screen. I walked to my car in a daze. I wasn’t looking over my shoulder waiting for something to pop out at me, but I was looking out into the misty afternoon, wondering if something lurked in the fields beyond. I didn’t lose any sleep over this movie, but I did find myself thinking about it constantly over the next week. There was not a particular scene I found myself mulling over: it was the tone of the entire movie. The feeling of dread I felt and carried with me out of that theater. That’s what I kept coming back to. It wasn’t the movie that stuck with me: it was that feeling.
I remember a similar feeling after watching the original Night of the Living Dead for the first time. The movies don’t share many similarities, but that feeling as I walked out of the theater was the same: like something dark was hanging over my head that was impossible to shake.
We see the titular witch early in the film, which is a fascinating decision. As we watched a family grow more and more suspicious of each other, Eggers easily could have played on that and make the audience question whether there actually was a witch, or whether it was just religious hysteria gripping the family. Instead, we knew from early on that there was an actual witch lurking in the woods. The question as to whether someone in the family is actually in league with the witch (or Satan) is one that the audience is forced to ask over and over again, but we have definitive proof that there is, in fact, a witch.
Knowing that there is a dark presence in the forest does not forgive the religious fanaticism that threatens to tear the family apart, but it does cast it in another light. The devil is real and we know that to be true. What happens to the family is driven by this presence, but it does not force them to blame each other for everything that goes wrong. The Puritanical oversimplification of religion – “all good comes from God, all bad comes from Satan” – is on full display here. While I wish I could say that is simply the product of a bygone era, I know all too well that this kind of thinking still exists. It’s not that simple. It has never been that simple.
I don’t want to say too much more, as I don’t want to spoil the movie.
The cast was perfect (Black Phillip included). The movie was a bit slow at points, but I was so riveted by what I was seeing that I never felt bored or that the movie was dragging.
The soundtrack really helped propel this movie to another level. Creepy atmospherics combined with a slowly bubbling cacophony that ended in massive eruptions. It really upped the “creep factor.” There is nothing inherently creepy about looking at a bunch of trees, but this movie managed to do that multiple times, and the soundtrack was a huge part of that.
This was not a terrifying movie. If you’re looking for jump scares, you will not find them here. But if you want a slow burning, unnerving horror thriller with disturbing imagery, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. On a grey day, turn off the lights and spend some time with this movie. Focus on it. Let it transport you back to that specific time and place in history and feel what it was like.
Unlike The Babadook and It Follows, the hype hurts this movie. It didn’t reach out and grab me. But, after thinking about it for a couple weeks, I think I really love this movie. The authentic language can be tough to understand sometimes, but that’s a small complaint. In the end, it really helped pull me into that period.