The Witch—What’s Playing?

By Casey Campbell

There’s been a boom in atmospheric horror in recent years. Films like It Follows, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and Hereditary strayed away from the more mainstream and generic horror that has been produced throughout the 2000’s. Sitting snugly within the bunch is one of my favorite horror movies, or simply one of my favorite movies from the past few decades: The Witch. Released in limited theaters in 2015 and opening wider the following year, The Witch is a masterpiece of atmosphere and period storytelling. It’s also short and available on Netflix!

The Witch is about a strictly puritan family in the 1630’s denouncing their colony and setting out into the wilderness of New England to start anew. The family, a mother and father with an eldest daughter, a younger son, two young twins, and a newborn baby, are soon left wondering whether their new home is safe, or if witchcraft is to answer for the disturbances.

Despite it’s brevity (around 90 minutes), The Witch has been maligned by general audiences for being slow, using period accurate old fashioned English, and lacking scares. Since there’s no way to objectively view art, I won’t simply disagree with these points. The movie is slow—if you don’t pay attention to the talented actors and film makers in front of and behind the camera. It’s tough to understand the characters—if you aren’t paying attention. There aren’t any scares—when you take away the main conceit of the movie and view it from a less-than-humane angle.

The beauty of film, and art in general, is that everyone can view it their own way. Not everyone needs to love the same thing! But when I see people shut this movie off after fifteen minutes, claiming the aforementioned reasons, it kind of sucks.

Here’s a horror movie set back in the 1630’s, a period rarely seen in film at all let alone done right, and it’s a magnificently careful rendering of that time. Listening to the commentary with writer/director Robert Eggers was first of all a treat, because I’ve seen the movie at least ten times now and it was nice to view it from a different angle, and also revelatory for all of the background info he doled out. He pointed out period accurate details, down to witch lore from 1630’s New England, as well as anything that was inaccurate.

As for the slowness of the movie, that’s purely up to the audience. My biggest flaw is that I find Blade Runner to be fairly boring (I have my reasons), so I can definitely understand someone not being entirely infatuated with The Witch. I will, however, offer the point that the characters in The Witch are entirely formed and perfectly acted. The film may not have many set pieces, but the story itself is rather quickly delivered and simple. It’s not like the story overstays its welcome, nor that it draws out any scenes. Each scene is immediately character focused, which is helped by the movies intimate setting and swift progression. Largely, there’s no time wasted anywhere. Even the cinematography helps to deliver the story.

Finally, the scares. The Witch is a scary story. Remember the Salem Witch Trials? This is set well before that, and, for fear of SPOILERS, contains an actual witch from the get-go. I flagged the spoiler there because the introduction of the witch is one of the most fulfilling yet equally disturbing scenes in the movie. If seeing a baby get stolen from his family and then subliminally/graphically killed to allow said witch to gain powers isn’t scary, you’re a kook. Especially when that’s the second scene in the movie.

The moment you see the witch on screen should be the moment you utterly give in to the movie and appreciate it for not going the route of metaphor. It’s a real witch. It’s not just some crazy religious anxiety that the family has, but a combination of the imprisonment felt by being trapped between both entities. Basically, it’s an incredibly clever and smart movie that uses subtext to it’s absolute advantage. It’s even meta, in that way. These atmospheric horror movies usually have a big societal message to them, sometimes being the answer to the horrific question at their center. But this movie is very literally about a witch that’s just fucking with a family. And it’s incredibly engaging.

The Witch is a powerhouse. It’s masterful in almost every way. The acting is something special, utilizing the always interesting Ralph Ineson (last seen in the brilliant Chernobyl series, as well as the even more brilliant The Hurricane Heist, and the really shitty Ready Player One), Kate Dickie (from Prevenge, a delightful romp, and Game of Thrones), and Anya Taylor-Joy (she’s just doing a lot of good stuff recently). The writing is realistic and paired tremendously with the well cast talent.

It’s a movie that’s almost perfect. It’s thrilling, for me at least, for how great it is. It’s also something that I love to recommend to people, so go check it out. It’s super good, I promise.

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