By the time I convinced myself to go see The Witch, the movie had quietly disappeared from local theaters in spite of earning more than thirty times its initial budget. I hadn’t seen any trailers. Hadn’t read much about the movie online. I just knew I wanted to see it because writers in horror magazines and blogs kept using it as a measuring stick. So when it finally turned up on VOD this week I went into it the best way possible: completely blind.
I assumed it’d probably be about a group of friends getting lost in the woods. I expected at least one scene in which the characters complain they’re not getting a cell phone signal. In other words, I wasn’t expecting much.
I wasn’t prepared for a good ol’ fashioned 17th century witch film, completely lacking in MTV editing and superficial bullshit. This is a horror movie for adults. To call it a horror movie—as if it has anything in common with shit like The Forrest or the needless Cabin Fever remake— is downright misleading.
I love movies about witches, whether there’s an actual witch or it’s just hysteria. (See: my review for Mark of the Devil.) The latter is typically much more terrifying than the former, but The Witch gives us the best of both worlds. It has as much in common with horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby as it does with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Slow but atmospheric, it builds upon the horrors experienced by a Christian family who have been forced to live in the wilderness after they’re outcast from their New England community.
And when I say “horrors,” the word alone just doesn’t do it justice.
Katherine, played by Kate Dickie (Catelyn Stark’s sister in Game of Thrones), is the mother of five children. She spends almost the entirety of the movie mourning the loss of one of those children and the grief is only going to be compounded from there on out. Dickie’s acting is subtle for the most part and believably grand when necessary. William, the father of the family, is played by Ralph Ineson (also from Game of Thrones) and he’s responsible for the sin which got his family thrown out of the village in the first place. He seems like a good man who has to do some borderline terrible things for (and to) his family. The film wisely keeps his former indiscretion vague so as not to let us pass judgment on him too early. Whereas his wife sobs herself to sleep whenever the unbelievably rough times get rougher, William quietly turns to prayer and chopping wood.
Their children include a newborn baby, boy and girl twins who spend their days playing with a goat, and Thomasin, the oldest, who doesn’t seem to be aware her younger brother Caleb is developing sexual feelings for her now that she’s becoming a woman. Because their father is a lousy hunter, Caleb and Thomasin secretly decide to go hunting one night despite the trouble they’ll get into when they return. It’s then they stumble upon the witch’s hut, which isn’t far from their own home, and I wouldn’t dream of telling you what happens next. Just know it’s pretty fucked up.
Hell, the entire movie is pretty fucked up.
My favorite thing about The Witch, which has plenty to like anyway, is the writing itself seems possessed by demons. Going off the rails usually isn’t a good thing and you have to be an extremely talented writer to hang on when you do. I just get this feeling that first time director Robert Eggers felt himself veering dangerously off course, but instead of correcting himself, he said “fuck it” and turned off of the intended road as hard as he could.
The unpredictability of the film, and the ease at which it subverts our expectations, isn’t contrived in the least and there’s never a “gotcha!” moment. When Eggers finished the script he probably surprised himself as much as he surprises us. It’s frustrating to think so much of the intended market isn’t getting it while the moviegoers who would appreciate it the most are probably dismissing it as “just another horror film.” Nonetheless, I have no doubt this will be a movie horror circles talk about for decades.
I can’t imagine there being a better horror film this year. (We’ve been getting so many good ones lately, though.)