Film Review: Eggers creates art-house horror classic with The Witch
To no surprise, niche horror continues to be met with antipathy from the mainstream.
The Witch earned Robert Eggers best director at Sundance more than a year ago, and reactions to advanced screenings of the film were such that A24 made the bold decision to give the independent horror a broad theatrical release in the United States. It made sense; championed by critics and bloggers alike and blessed with a superb marketing campaign, The Witch appeared to be the rare horror film that could draw audiences both young and old.
And draw it did, taking in just over $8 million during its first week in mid-February. An exceptional return considering the movie’s $3.5 million budget, sure, but far from the $16 million it tracked for following strong Thursday screening numbers.
So, what happened? Expectation and tradition, unfortunately.
Audiences tend to revolt against films that subvert expectation, that confound logic and invest in the ambient and emotional rather than the graphic. The Witch is no gore fest, and it shares little with its independent horror brethren. As such, casual movie-goers failed to connect with Eggers’ grim folktale (to put it nicely).
This, of course, is a shame because The Witch is one of the finest horror films of recent memory.
Yes, this is very much a horror movie. Whether you like it or not. A witch does exist in Eggers’ Puritan New England, and this supernatural threat is introduced no more than five minutes into Act 1. The evil is real, deliberately positioned so early in the film to free viewers of potential disbelief and challenge them to embrace their fear.
Thankfully, it’s a challenge easily met. Eggers displays superior craft in his directorial debut, blending a sparse, piercing score with rustic, unforgiving visuals to create a truly bone-chilling atmosphere that will leave you crippled. The deliberate pacing creates a genuine tension that serves as a bridge from scene to scene, linking each piece of this folk tale with precision and meaning. Slow burn usually means boring. Well, this movie is no bore; in fact, it’s viscerally unsettling in a way that will stay with you for a long, long while.
The film’s ominous tone, so brilliant, revels not in gashing you at every turn, but by eating at your soul. Slowly, steadily. Just because the scares aren’t immediate and/or sustained doesn’t restrict a film from being horrifying, no. The Witch employs this method of storytelling to triumphant effect, asking, nay forcing, you to engage with it, to seep into its unsettling malaise. It’s a meticulous film that slithers into your subconscious over the course of an hour and a half, never once providing respite. Troubling, unnerving and upsetting – this is a disturbing experience.
The sheer amount of detail and care brought to this film is astonishing. The Witch’s authentic dialogue may prove a chore for most, but for all the right reasons. Eggers’ insistence on period accuracy (much of the dialogue is lifted directly from transcripts and court documents of the time) pushes audiences to care, to listen, to invest. It’s yet another layer of realism to an already engrossingly realistic movie.
And while the The Witch certainly embraces the supernatural, its most jarring moments are shaped around the family as it slowly, painful devolves into hysteria. Watching their collective descent as fear overcomes the group is genuinely terrifying. Perhaps the film’s most gripping scene, featuring a stunning turn by Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), is fueled not by his own battle but by how it affects those that love him most. This is a family both strangled and undone by its own beliefs, ripped apart by even the prospect of the ethereal.
It is this prospect that is at the center of elder child Thomasin’s masterful coming of age. Played by Anya Taylor-Joy in a star-turning performance, Thomasin is, as women were in the period, viewed merely as currency. She exists simply to serve the family. There is even an attempt by her mother, suspicious of the maturing Thomasin from the off, to lend her to another household (as a servant) to ease the family’s burden. This ostracization extends to her siblings, and later her father.
[Slight Spoilers] Watching then as her family, in particular her father, a rare ally in her life for so long, implodes only serves to bring forth a revolt that had long been brewing. It is of course a revolt of damning consequence, and while her self-empowerment is expected, it also is deeply troubling. Thomasin lost everything to reach this point, but has she indeed freed herself from the shackles of the repressive or simply traded one organized coven for another?
It’s a frightening question, one that lingers long after the credits have rolled. Perhaps that is The Witch’s greatest accomplishment – this is a film you will not soon forget. Those seeking an evening with Jigsaw may leave disappointed, but viewers with a more expansive definition of horror will find a deeper sense of terror in The Witch. Go see it.
The Jack to the Future media rating scale™ is based out of five Doc Browns. Each Emmett Lathrop Brown represents 1.21 gigawatts of scoring. A perfect five Doc Browns out of five rating is akin to The Source’s prestigious 5 mic rating, pre-1999.