“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
The Witch is the latest film in the wave of unconventional horror movies that have received critical acclaim coming out of various film festivals, in similar fashion to movies such as It Follows and The Babadook. As a fan of horror movies who is usually disappointed a large percent of the time, I absolutely loved both of those films for their fresh take on horror. So when The Witch began to receive similar acclaim as those two films, I started to get excited.
And rightfully so.
The Witch follows a New England family during the puritanism era who separate themselves from their village due to religious differences. Once they are out on their own, they encounter a horrific force of evil that preys upon their family.
This film was never outright “scary”, but watching this movie I felt disturbed, unnerved, and uncomfortable. The movie shies away from cheap jump scares and other similar tropes from typical horror movies. Instead, the film delivers something that feels outright sinister and evil. From the beginning of the film, there is a sense of uneasiness that doesn’t relent until it ends. For a first time director, Robert Eggers has crafted a guaranteed classic in horror cinema.
Eggers portrayal of witches and witchcraft in the early 1600s is reminiscent of the quintessential witchcraft film Haxan and its influence can be felt throughout. The depiction of Satan and magic in this film feel very grounded and appropriate for the time period. The genuinely horrific and disturbing imagery in this film pays homage to classic fairy tales and folk lore and helps to convey this sense of historical accuracy for a film that deals in mostly fantastical elements.
That aforementioned sense of uneasiness that is felt from the film is greatly amplified by its cinematography. The way it is shot intensifies the horror by actually letting the majority of the violence occur off screen, instead choosing to focus on the characters reaction to the violence, leaving the actual details to the audience’s imagination. This is very effective as it helps to convey the horror of this satanic force without resorting to a by the numbers schlock fest. Eggers understands that often times the audience’s imagination is worse than anything that can be shown on screen and he takes full advantage of this concept.
The film has a tendency to linger in its shots. Often times the camera will focus on a scene for what feels to be a couple seconds too long. This is consistent throughout the entire movie and just helps contribute to that feeling of uneasiness. These scenes are driven by the absolute haunting score this film possesses. Honestly, I think the composer of this score struck a deal with Satan himself to conjure his actual essence because this score alone was enough to seriously unnerve me.
All of the actors in the film gave good performances, but what really surprised me was the talent of the child actors. I have never been this impressed and creeped out by the performance of a child actor, but there are scenes in this film (that I will not spoil) that I could not believe I was watching due to Eggers great directing of their performances. Throughout the film the cast is speaking in an old English vernacular, almost Shakespearean. This script by Eggers helps to drive some really convincing and earnest performances, as well as lead to a couple impressive monologues. At times due to the heavy dialect, the dialogue is hard to understand, but for the most part it was a creative choice that really paid off.
The film is not without its faults, however. I felt there were some pacing issues throughout the film. This is a slow burn type of film and for the most part, it works. However there are few portions of the film that feel they drag on a bit, and on the other hand, there are a few scenes that I feel could have benefited from some expanded focus. The first act of the film takes some time before it really hits its stride, and some scenes in the middle of the film feel a bit rushed. But the third act is a completely different story.
The final act of this film is a frightening descent into madness that really showcases the strengths of this film. The horrific imagery, stellar cinematography and score, as well as the performances from the actors, are all at their very best in the final portion of the film. There are some genuinely disturbing moments in the final act that really ends the film on a high note. Well, besides a specific choice the director makes in the final scene of the film that will definitely be divisive.Without going into spoilers, I understood what Eggers was going for, but it really didn’t work for me and came across as a bit cheesy. Your mileage may vary.
Overall this is a truly great horror film that sticks with you a while after it has ended. Driving home after the film I still felt unnerved and unsettled, and those feelings stayed with me the rest of the night. And to me, those are the symptoms of having watched something truly terrifying.