Every year it seems we are treated to one revolutionary horror film that manages to be both food for the mind and, embarrassingly, liquid for the jeans. Last year it was It Follows, the year before was The Babadook and even though the year has just begun we have been graced with The Witch. Well, I don’t exactly feel graceful after watching it—more like sick to the stomach and disillusioned than anything. You know, that feeling you get when you’ve just seen something you feel you really shouldn’t have seen.
This is because, like The Exorcist, The Witch is truly an evil little movie. Taking bits and pieces from colonial-age horror stories, the movie hones in on a creepy little nugget of life that only storytellers and crazy hobos have believed for years: there are evil forces in this world, they’re coming for you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The Witch takes that and forces you to sit and watch it plague an unsuspecting family. Like I said, an evil little movie.
Now this isn’t a perky modern family where the husband has the perfect job, the wife looks perfect and the kids are so perfectly annoying you just wanna strangle their perfect little eyes out of their sockets. No, this family lives in colonial-era New England, so if they’re happy it’s only because none of them have typhus or rickets.
After being banished from their village for being too religious in colonial-era New England this cold, sullen, rag-clad family heads off into the wilderness to start a new life. Everything around them is dreary, drab and devoid of color or sunshine. The place they live makes you think that, for the children, their first introduction to everything from sex to math will just be a pile of corn.
With a script that stays true to old-English, they speak in “thee”, “thou”, “hither”, “pray thee tell” and other flutters of the tongue that make you feel smart for understanding it. However, this family is deeply religious, so their constant talk of prayer and damnation leaves a lingering sense of dread in their speech. I don’t think that’s the intent when it comes to speaking about God, but there is something eerily evil in talking about religion. It’s all very doom-laden and sinister, like it’s spoken out of having done something bad, with something worse coming over the horizon.
All this apocalyptic talk makes for a perfect setting for the movie. With its heavy, grim atmosphere, The Witch is a machine with fuel that burns slowly. Starting off quick, with a witch snatching an adorable baby, you know the family is in trouble. But she doesn’t come back, like a Jason Voorhees or Donald Trump. In fact, you almost never see “the witch” again. She’s like a demonic puppeteer. The snatching of the baby was simply a catalyst for the family to bring about their own destruction.
A dreadful by-the-numbers game, one-by-one all the family members fall to their own sin. Very soon it begins to feel less like a family and more like a cult crumbling from the inside. They’re in the open wilderness and yet the tension is so claustrophobic. Then, just when you think maybe they can recover, “the witch”, in one way or another, comes to poke the bear. Like Jaws creeping to the surface just enough to rock the boat.
Here is where we get the truly haunting scenes. Very little of the movie features “jump scares”. Instead we get drawn-out, deeply unnerving scenes of evil prevailing and taking away any sense of innocence you thought you had left. You know there is something wrong going on. The air is thick, the music is screeching and pulsating all while doom slowly creeps in and takes you. I never jumped, but I was always uncomfortable and uneasy. It also didn’t help I got a large soda.
The movie disburses this tension with an unrelentingly slow pace. It plays out more like a drama than anything. The inner-family quarreling screams Shakespeare and is also acted as such. This is the finest-acted horror movie I’ve personally ever seen, with such commitment from the entire cast both young and old. The sheer dedication to the time-period and characters they play is marvelous, Oscar-worthy and makes the style of script—which will turn many away—richly rewarding to hear spoken aloud. They give the movie its complexity, forcing you to watch their every move as to analyze exactly why this is happening to them and why they’re making it worse.
Yes, evil is the precise word for this movie. Nothing about it is sacred and it doesn’t try to be. Doom is the engine and darkness is its accelerator. However, once you get over the nightmares, enlightenment is at the end of the tunnel. A richly detailed horror movie that allows you to realize all the potential the tired genre still has, as long as people like director Robert Eggers have the courage to bring it to light. Sure, you will lose fans expecting minute-to-minute jumps, as boyfriends deal with angry girlfriends who were taken to “dumb, educational movies where the people talked like dummies.” But screw those people. This is for the people who care to have their resolve and brains tested. In short, it belongs to those who wish to conquer the dread, with help from their nightlight.