It’s not often that horror movies make it onto my most anticipated movies of the year lists. Although after the buzz started to come out of Sundance about ‘The Witch’, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. The trailers then solidified my fascination with writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature film debut thanks to the overall eerie aura that the former production designer managed to create. That being said, beyond the deeply unsettling tone set by the New England folktale, there wasn’t much else to write home about in this solid effort to give audiences something more than jump scares and things that go bump in the night.
Set in 17th century New England, a Puritan family has been excommunicated from their plantation to a remote cabin near the woods after the father objected to their community’s lax religious practices. After settling into the less than ideal situation, the family tries their best to make things work. But when their baby boy disappears, their daughter is accused of witchcraft and they start to break apart in the face of a great unknown evil.
From the get-go, ‘The Witch’ is an incredibly unsettling movie. The audience really feels uneasy as this family break down piece by piece and slowly descend into madness due to the series of trials and tribulations that they face adds to the looming dread created by those dwelling in woods. The script really captured the struggles of people of that time period using actual historical documents to craft the dialogue. But what makes that even more crazy is that the talk of witches and demons were drawn from the same sources. When you think about what ‘American Horror Story’ tries to do when they attempt to give us scary stories deeply rooted in American culture, this manages to do exactly that with extreme accuracy and authenticity. And considering where Eggers came from prior to this, it’s no surprise that he was able to nail the visuals including the sets, the shots, and the lighting in order to create the deeply perturbing backdrop for this story.
The setting and cinematography weren’t the only things that sell the viewers on the legitimacy of ‘The Witch’. The cast commits 100% to their roles and the dread that their characters are experiencing translates very well to the big screen. And while there are strong performances all around, it has to be said that the younger members of the cast such as Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw really shined with their portrayals of Thomasin and Caleb respectively. Their interpretations of their character really added to the doom and gloom of the overall production.
However, when it was all said and done, I left the theater feeling like nothing really happened. I’m reminded of the time that I saw Jonathan Glazer’s unique sci-fi thriller ‘Under The Skin’ starring Scarlett Johansson because that too was a unique genre slice of life film. The endings also felt very similar, especially both movies end with the female protagonist entering the woods. But the difference is that I was deep in thought after ‘Under The Skin’. I needed time to unwind after what I had just seen. That wasn’t really the case here, though. While both movies really drew me in with their rich world-building and unsettling premises, some of the scariest moments of ‘The Witch’ happened offscreen or in sort of strobe light flashes. I liked the way that the movie builds and builds and keeps on escalating the tension with the help of lingering shots and the sinister score, but when it comes to the climax, things seem to end a bit abruptly.
This portrait of this Puritan family that lived a generation before the famed Salem Witch Trials was meticulously designed and created one hell of a backdrop for a terrifying tale, but it fell short of really delivering everything that ‘The Witch’ was hyped up to be. At the end of the day, it was one of those movies that was cool to experience once and that’s about it. I don’t even think that mainstream audiences will be as receptive to it as the critics have been. But if you’re looking for a fresh, original, and unconventional offering to the horror genre, then it might be worth checking out. Otherwise, maybe a second (or third or fourth) viewing of ‘Deadpool’ or ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is what the casual moviegoer needs instead.