The Witch follows the trials of a 17th century New England family banished from society to a home on the outskirts of a threatening woods. They struggle to survive: the crops die, the hunting traps bear no food, the chicken’s eggs bear stillborn chicks. But what is to blame for the family’s misfortune? For the Puritanical family, their misfortune becomes a hysteria over religious heathenism.
The film is marked by quiet. At the film’s outset, we get a flurry of screeching string chords and chanting voices, but mostly we are relegated to silence.
Accompanying this eerie quiet are lingering shots that hold on simple images, but the static camera gives these mundane images a strangeness that is immediately unsettling. The shot structure is truly sensational. Edit points and shot lengths make the shots breathable yet discomforting at the same time.
The Witch is heavily inspired by the Salem Witch Trials, and it is evident, as is first-time director Robert Eggers passion for the subject. The narrative glows with a slow burn that twists like a knife in the gut, the hysteria manifesting itself around these quiet moments. It is Miller’s The Crucible for a new generation, if not a tad too akin to his famous play for comfort.
What the modern horror film fails at egregiously, time and time again, is the formation of real characters. Horror is easy to do because it can be sold with knock-off, cliche characters that serve no emotional purpose. In The Witch, we see well-rounded characters with real-world tension that go beyond the element of the supernatural.
The acting in the film helps bolster these characters. The up-and-coming Anya Taylor-Joy leads the way as the eldest daughter in the family, who is accused of dealings with the devil. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie also give stirring performances as the parents struggling with faith and family. But it is one scene led by an ailed Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) that steals the show.
For everything that The Witch excels in, it finds issue in the same element that makes it so awesome. Particularly after the scene mentioned above, the quietness and the deliberate pacing of the film start to grind things to a halt as opposed to ratchet it up to a climactic final sequence. Sure, there is a satisfying climax, but the film stretches itself too thin on either side of it. In short, the film is about three shots too long.
The Witch provides a satisfying dose of dread to an otherwise in-your-face genre, while centering its tension on a worthy slate of characters. If it’s high-octane scares you’re looking for, this isn’t the place. But for the atmospheric horror fans out there, this is the one for you.
The Witch is currently available to rent and buy on Amazon Video here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen The Witch? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)