The Witch (2016)

10 Dec

thewitch2

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2016—a surprising good year for horror. Among the titles I enjoyed watching: “Hush,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Don’t Breathe,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Lights Out,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “The Invitation,” “Green Room,” and of course, the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” But for some reason, I didn’t see a film called “The Witch,” which people have labeled the best horror film of the year. But I recently rented the DVD and gave it a watch…

And then something strange happened: I had trouble sleeping that night.

Then, on the next day, I thought back to the other titles I mentioned in the above paragraph and I realized: as much as I enjoyed the thrills and suspense those movies had to offer, none of them really got under my skin. Don’t get me wrong—they were fun to watch and had me on-edge during crucial tense moments. But I can watch them again with no problem at all. I get the feeling that if I watched “The Witch” again, I would need to brace myself, even though I would know what’s coming. That’s the effect this film had on me. It’s a deeply unsettling, heavily atmospheric, incredibly disturbing, exquisitely made film that gave me the chills.

“The Witch” is a mix of a horror film and a period drama. (In fact, I think this film may be what I looked for and missed in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.”) Set on a small farm in the middle of some woods in 1630s Massachusetts, it’s centered solely on one small set of characters: a Puritan family who recently arrived from England after being banished from their church for vague reasons, which I think have to do with their interpretation of the New Testament. The parents are farmer William (Ralph Ineson, chillingly good here) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and the children are teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-teenage Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and infant Samuel. They live in the woods, far from the Puritan settlement.

When I write a review about how things slowly but surely go wrong for a group of characters in a horror film, you would expect the occurrences to start small, like disappearing pets or farming animals, objects becoming lost, or even a strange sight in the woods. But no—the horror truly begins early on, as the little baby Samuel disappears. That is a truly unsettling scene, when Thomasin is watching him and playing peekaboo, and suddenly, he just vanishes. Already, this causes grief and fear for the family, who pray endlessly. It begins a terrible time of paranoia, dread, uncertainty, ideals heading south, condemning, and more disturbances.

The film doesn’t throw everything at us, like a typical supernatural thriller would do. It gradually shows the situation getting worse and worse, with a slow build and very few details (shades of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” are merited). We’re not even sure of everything happening around this family. Is there a witch living in the woods causing all the trouble? Is there another explanation? Whatever is happening escalates to darker, deeper areas, and the family is surely doomed.

The horror is found in small, simple chilling moments. I already mentioned the disappearance of the baby, but there’s another bit that truly got me. I won’t give it away, but it involves the milking of a cow. Above all, there’s something I’ve always found chilling about people imposing their will on other people because of their religious beliefs; that’s why, when the family starts to see each other as being associated with the evil outside, I was held in suspense, terrified of what might happen. And the less I say about the ending, the better…

But the best aspect of “The Witch” by far is its execution. This film is heavy on its chilling atmosphere. It’s painted in bleak colors. You can practically feel the environment, which also means you can feel the immense tension. The attention to detail delivered to us by writer-director Robert Eggers (who worked mostly as a production designer before he made this film) is brilliantly done. Execution is key to the film.

I often use the phrase “a film I won’t forget anytime soon” to describe the effect a good film has on me. I use it again for “The Witch,” because any film that can keep me awake at night definitely qualifies as…a film I won’t forget anytime soon. It truly is the best horror film of the year.

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