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Review: The Witch (2016)

The Witch (2016)

Directed by: Robert Eggers

Premise: Set in 1630 New England, a Puritan family leaves their community to live on an isolated farm. After their infant child disappears, the family is haunted by increasingly violent supernatural phenomena.
What Works: In the past few years there has been a growing crop of impressive independent horror titles such as The Babadook, It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. These movies aren’t getting major press or even playing in mainstream theaters but they’ve been an intelligent break from the obnoxious fare that has populated movie screens for the past few years. These films favor a slow burn over ostentatious gore or loud bangs and they often deal with uncomfortable subject matter. The Witch is another of these impressive horror titles. The picture shows some inspiration from early Roman Polanski films like Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion but it also descends from American folk tales such as Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Horror of this kind often has the same vibe as a folk tale and that’s created especially well in this film. The Witch is suffused with an atmosphere of gloom as a Puritan family attempts to subsist in the wilderness, cut off from their former neighbors, and later cope with the grief of losing a child. Although it has supernatural elements, the film plays coy with them. These events could be real or they could be the paranoia and superstition of the characters. In that respect, this is a movie about grief, fear, and guilt and it smartly repurposes and comments upon the folktales that it imitates. The Witch is also a period piece and that is one of the standout aspects of this film. The characters speak in a formal syntax and when movies do that the performances often become stagy and rigid. The family of The Witch feels authentic. The children may speak in a peculiar way but they behave like kids playing the yard. That familiarity cuts through the barrier that the costumes and unusual dialogue put between the characters and the audience and places us in the midst of an authentic drama. The performances by the core cast are very good but Anya Taylor-Joy impresses as the eldest daughter. Taylor-Joy’s character is on the cusp of womanhood and the movie is partly about the life choices offered to her by a patriarchal society.

What Doesn’t: The Witch is not going to appeal to the audience that made Saw and Paranormal Activity into box office successes. This is a quieter and more cerebral film than that. It isn’t about gore nor does the movie have a lot of jump scares. What is frightening about The Witch is underneath the action. That’s not a fault of the movie.  In fact, those qualities are exactly what make The Witch work so well. But the Friday night horror audience is frequently looking for something more immediately visceral than what’s offered here. The movie is also probably going to annoy members of the contemporary witchcraft subculture. The Witch resurrects the traditional notion of witches as evil women living in the woods and preying upon the innocent instead of New Age naturalists sitting in a drum circle. There’s room enough in the culture for both of those interpretations and in fact The Witch approaches those old conventions with intelligence. There has been some praise for this film as a feminist piece. That’s overstating the film’s gender politics. There is more going on in the movie than simplistic moral dualism and The Witch does critique gender roles and the notion of the traditional nuclear family but the argument that this movie is about female empowerment is reading ideas into it that aren’t there.

Bottom Line: The Witch is a smart and frightening horror picture. Its appeal may be limited but for those who can appreciate it, The Witch is a very satisfying mix of supernatural and psychological horror.

Episode: #585 (March 6, 2016)