Occasionally, there is a film that is recommended to you time and time again that you, for some inconceivable reason, avoid watching. For me 2016 was the year of The Witch. It made an appearance on most best of the year lists and it came out in February, so why did it take me 14 months to finally sit down and watch The Witch?
Frankly, I don’t care why. I don’t care about much anymore. Not after seeing The Witch. I used up all my willpower powering through the last twenty minutes and I am now a husk.
The Witch is an atmospheric horror with the emphasis on atmosphere. It boasts a charcoal black tone and a slow creep of tension with a touch of phantasm. Aided by dimly lit, isolated locales and a tiny cast it is as low budget as can be, but also as low budget as it needs to be. It is a simple story of a family being tormented by a witch. That’s all there really is to say about the plot, the rest you can discover by yourself when you watch this amazing film.
The film’s greatest strength is its ability to construct fear as opposed to simply stating ‘here is the scary bit. You gasp now.’ Many movies mistake a jump scare as the payoff for building tension, Robert Eggers understands that the most terrifying payoff is one that is entirely constructed in the viewer’s mind. The Witch gives its viewers enough information to scare themselves with each new turn of the story without resorting to cheap tricks. The titular witch is revealed within the first ten minutes so it leaves no space for stupid clichés of the genre (“What was that?” “Probably just the wind” – “don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing as witches” etc etc)
There is a complete lack of jump scares and most the film’s power lies with the family unit that is being picked apart bit by bit. Like in The Shining, the film finds terror in the potential for family members to turn on each other. They search for meaning in God, the devil, fate and vengeance, all while the viewer knows its witchcraft. It’s a downward spiral of desperation and despair that only gets worse, and it’s fantastic.
It is held together by solid performances on all sides, Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie play their roles with a terrifically level mix of faith and despair. Yet they are both outshined by Anya Taylor-Joy, who hopped right from this role to the lead role in M Night Shyamalan’s Split. She plays the eldest daughter Thomasin with a fantastically mature and expressive performance and will hopefully be seen in more roles like this soon.
The film combines the atmosphere of The Shining with the aesthetics of The Blair Witch Project. It is well shot and simple in its beauty and muted colour pallet. However, criticisms will come from those who find difficulty acclimatising to the film, the characters speak in olde English and live in the 17th century, hardly the most glamourous or accessible of settings. Yet the dialogue is simple and easy to understand and the effort acquired to fall into the film is easily worth it for the terror that proceeds it. I hear potential whispers of people possibly calling The Witch boring and I hear louder whispers of myself telling those people to go fuck themselves.
It’s a dark film, a slow film, it is unpleasant and hard to watch and it all comes together to create a perfect unity. All in the service of atmosphere and mood, it creates weighty moments of real drama and tragedy, getting into the heads of the characters with an incredible effectiveness.
One of the greatest examples of ‘feel-bad cinema’ I have ever seen. The music is filled with dread, but not dreadful, the mood is horrible to bare but incredible to watch. If you can appreciate a good atmosphere and a story well told, then you owe it to yourself to see The Witch. I have not yet been so close to giving out my first A+ grade