The VVitch is a tortured descent into madness and hysteria

Fear is in the eye of the beholder in this jump scare free atmospheric horror

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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.

Recommendation

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

Split is Shyamalan at his best with traces of him at his worst

McAvoy is a joy to watch in this fascnating B-movie venture

M Night Shyamalan has had a fascinating career. Having found success with the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he went on to make a procession of big budget movies with severely diminishing returns. This came to a head with the release of The Last Airbender and After Earth, where his filmmaking ability and reputation crashed into a pit of internet comments and despair and in recent years he has become a punchline. So, what does a filmmaker do when his creditability is destroyed?

Apparently, the answer is to make a horror film about murderous grandparents because it seems as if his foray into cheesy B-movie horror, The Visit has allowed him to embrace his roots. Leading to his latest release, Split, an abduction thriller about a man with 23 distinct personalities. Which embraces its B-movie influences with open arms to great effect. James McAvoy carries the film as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who kidnaps three young girls. One of the girls, Casey, is troubled, detached and not well liked and she provides the emotional weight of the film while the other two girls are vapid horror movie fodder. Betty Buckley plays Dr Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist who gets wind of what’s happening. The psychological aspect, limited locations and investigatory element all lend the film a Hitchcockian vibe.

The film is not sensitive, reproachful or probing, it is not a look into the mind of a killer, it is not ambiguous, it is an exploitation flick in all the right ways. Subtlety is hit with a sledgehammer and thrown in the lake. The film takes less than ten minutes for the central abduction to occur and starts showing us James McAvoy doing different voices because it knows that is what we are there to see. The film has 3 locations and less than a dozen speaking roles because it doesn’t need any more than that. The premise of a villain with 23 personalities is loaded with the possibility of so much fun that it needn’t divert from that.

Where Split fails is in the dialogue, which suffers when Kevin is not on the screen, the film is a well of pop psychology and over exposition, with characters detailing exactly what is happening and what will happen next a little too often. Shyamalan does well to establish the rules of the universe in the early part of the film yet he insists on constantly adding new rules on top of that and reiterating old ones. It’s a little tiring and eventually your eyes glaze over until McAvoy is back on screen. McAvoy is fantastic in this, Kevin has no distinguishing features, he is a mannequin to play with. His clothes indicate which personality is in control and when that option is not available McAvoy does well to embody different characters within the same body, it’s an admirable, odd and humorous thing to behold.

The film struggles to create empathy for Casey, our emotional ballast, who is silent and miserable even before her abduction. The film settles for multiple close-ups of her eyes and lips as a replacement for characterisation and it falls mostly flat. Yet there is an effort to create drama through a series of massively uninteresting flashbacks to her childhood, which only take away from the film and do nothing to enhance Casey’s character. That is until the last flashback, where we are given information that does not impact the story but rather Casey’s character, the question must be asked that if there was characterisation to be had, why wasn’t it at the beginning when we were establishing who Casey was in our minds?

It leads to a larger problem with Shyamalan’s filmmaking about saving information till the end which I have went into detail about here.

Recommendation

All the ingredients are there for a great little movie, a late night guilty pleasure. Small scale with a great focus, it’s a film that knows itself. Superficially the film looks great, the directing is effective and the ambient soundtrack creates a great uneasy tension.

The film is fun, held together by a multi-faceted but ultimately simple villain. Not by any stretch of the imagination is it a quality film but it is pure enjoyment, cinematic and endlessly interesting. People may be turned off by the final third of the movie and that is understandable but I believe it’s worth a watch. Split is exactly the type of film that Shyamalan should always have been making and I hope he continues embracing the beauty of the schlocky B-movie.