In the past, I’ve typically avoided January and February movies that aren’t just Oscar movies getting wide releases. Conventional Hollywood wisdom dictates that, post-Christmas, the average family’s savings are pretty drained, so they’re probably cutting back on luxuries, and movies are probably the first to go. And since no one wants to release a great movie, only to see it flop because no one wants to see it, they just release the crap that can’t compete at any other time of year in this dead zone.
This year, that wisdom appears to have been challenged. Between the release of the latest, highly anticipated Coen Brothers movie and the massive success of Deadpool, it seems like worthwhile movies are starting to get released in February. And since last year’s best horror film, It Follows was released early in the year as well, I thought it might be worth my time to go and check out The Witch.
The film opens in 17th century New England a family of settlers, led by William (Ralph Ineson) is kicked out out a Puritan plantation, for being too religious. For the Puritans. Anyway, he moves out to the edge of the woods with his wife Katherine (Katie Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and two twins Mercy and Jonas (I have too many names in this paragraph). But moving out there draws the attention of a Witch who lives in the woods, who steals their newborn and makes it her business to torment them and…actually that’s about it.
Seriously, that end to the paragraph sound facetious or like I’m hiding something, but I’m not. Modern audiences are used to 17th century Witch stories have a tendency to wind up with about the same story and theme as The Crucible. And while I don’t want to downplay those stories, which are incredibly valuable, it’s sometimes nice for a horror movie to go the straightforward route.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t metaphors in the film’s plot (mostly relating to the family’s extreme religious outlook leaving them entirely unprepared for honest emotional confrontation, or indeed their children’s encroaching puberty) just that the typical Witch narrative isn’t here. There really is a baby killing, black magic casting, Satan worshiping witch in this movie. No ifs, ands or buts.
Which is probably the only way in which The Witch is straightforward. The Witch eschews a lot of modern horror tropes and techniques, like extreme gore or jump scares, in favor of a slow building sense of dread, isolation and helplessness. The titular Witch herself only appears briefly, and her backstory or motivation are never explored or even acknowledged. This isn’t a film interested in making you jump out of your chair, it’s interested in making you sink down into it with your mouth covered. It takes some real directing skill to make a rabbit scary.
The focus therefore is tight on the family and their fracturing bonds and dynamic. Choosing to put character work front and center is always a risky move in low budget horror, since it puts the focus, and the weight, on the writing and directing, and if those things fail, they can drag the entire movie down with them much more intently than hiccups in the effects. Fortunately, for this movie at least, everything managed to work out.
The script is particular is extremely unique, with a singular devotion to maintaining period appropriate English that you don’t generally see in movies nowadays. It’s also well written, the small cast and tight focus unencumbered by unnecessary subplots or tangents, and the the limited location giving it a claustrophobic atmosphere that should be entirely at odds with the wide open scenery, but just works, for reasons I can’t entirely explain.
The acting holds up its end as well. Anya Taylor-Joy was a virtual unknown going into the movie, but she gives an intense performance, that subtly highlights the kind of emotional stunting her extremely isolated and fanatical religious upbringing has wrought upon her. Ralph Ineson is the other major standout, his deep gruff voice and imposing frame disguising how utterly helpless he is in this situation. And while I’m on the subject, I do find it amusing that both Ineson and Katie Dickie were in Game of Thrones together, even if they were never on screen together.
Compared to the things it does right, the things The Witch gets wrong are comparatively minor. There does seem to be a bit of an issue with it going on a hair too long (not the ending it chose, just the specific shot and sequence it chose to end on) and with the twins being not particularly interesting characters. I know why they’re included, but they never evolve beyond “Two six year old little s**ts” and that’s a tiny bit disappointing, given how well written all the other characters are.
Still, compared to how well written, directed and acted the movie is, the minor hiccups here and there are barely relevant. I don’t know if The Witch is better than Deadpool, mostly because I haven’t seen Deadpool, but I do know that The Witch is a genuinely excellent movie, and one that a lot of people are going to be talking about once more people have had a chance to see it. Here’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor. This movie comes highly recommended, to both horror fans and general fans of good movies.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile and I’m pretty sure that the rabbit from this movie is related to the fox from Antichrist.
– incredibly tense and frightening throughout
– great screenplay and acting
– beautiful direction and cinematography
– maybe goes on a little too long
– twins don’t get much characterization