The Witch movie full length review - What It Lacks in Originality is Made Up for in Tension
One needs only look over my ratings and reviews to see that I watch a lot of horror, from classics to modern, from the lowest budget indies to Hollywood mainstream, I'm always on the quest for a great horror experience.
It's interesting to me when Hollywood releases what is, truly, a great horror film and the responses to it. The "general public" will gush about how scary the movie is, but these same people enjoy garbage films like THE PURGE. On the other hand, the horror hipsters will go out of their way to bash it just because it's popular. Yet these same people will rally around bland, uninspired movies like STARRY EYES just because every other horror hipster said it was great.
I believe that I try my very best to judge movies on their own merits, no matter what the budget or hype going into it. That can be hard, of course, because expectation alters perception. In THE WITCH, I firmly believe that Hollywood has released a horror film that may not be a "classic", but is just as thoughtful and intelligent as anything indie horror is doing right now. The horror in this movie works on so many levels, yet one would be hard pressed to point to many "scary scenes". Indeed, many of the complaints I have seen are the typical "not scary" nonsense that haunt any intelligent horror film. Yes, there are no jump scares, not really any terrifying monsters, no gore and few creep out scenes, yet the tension is palpable and I found myself hanging on the edge of my seat. I am not going to throw out the "slow burn" phase because I don't really think this qualifies, but indeed it is a movie about the simmering tension of fears and terror, rather than outright hitting you with any fright.
On one level this is a film about the terrors of oppressive religion. The family is outcast by their Puritan society at the beginning and left to flounder in the wilderness because of religious belief. Indeed, the family's daily life is a litany of catechism and prayer. As many a film has explored before this, when the stuff hits the fan, this religion becomes the very thing that makes it so easy to tear them apart. What begins as childless implications of witchcraft become quite real accusations. A family that spends every minute of every day together is found to believe that perhaps their children could be witches, an idea with no logical sense but believable to those terrified of the devil and touch of sin. Indeed, I found myself saying to my wife about halfway through this movie that their religion was far scarier to me than any witch.
On another level, we have a terror of a decaying family, another subject mined often in horror, but well done here. Left to band together after being outcast by their society, the family quickly falls apart after losing their infant youngest. The loss of that child begins to unravel this family. The mom falls apart, the father starts hiding things from her, the children turn on each other, the mom starts to despise her daughter for her part in the child's loss. This family that began as such a tight unit are suddenly their own worst enemies, which of course makes it easy for them to become ripe for the witch's picking.
We, also, get a heavy dose of the occult terror. Yes, there really is a witch, though only seen in a few scenes. I liked that she felt like a modern Baba Yaga, a real witch of the woods out of some Grimm fairy tale. Then, there's Black Phillip, a goat who may or may not be the living impersonation of the devil. All of the satanic goings on culminate in a great finale that feels at home alongside Rob Zombie's LORDS OF SALEM.
Another terror seen here is creepy children, using the young twins as unsettling little monsters. At first they are merely annoying, then that lingering creepiness settles in with their possibly evil little nursery rhymes. Much like the real Salem witch trials, it is these children who ultimately start throwing out the accusations that destroy so many lives. It is rare that a first time director is capable of making so many things work so well, all at one time, all while creating a film that is stark and sublime in it's evil beauty as well.
What's keeping this from being a higher rating, for me personally, is that so much of this felt done before. That's to be somewhat expected in the horror genre where just about everything has been done before, but in this case it all felt familiar quite often. There are elements of THE CRUCIBLE, THE SHINING, THE INNOCENTS, and other horror classics. At no time does this feel like a re-tread of anything, but it also didn't feel like I was watching some ground- breaking original either. That makes it all the more impressive for me that Eggers was able to make such a haunting film that will stick with you for awhile.
I'll leave with one more comment about the language, which is spot on for the era, in syntax, lexicon and accent. We are listening to people from the 1600s speak to each other. That seems to bother a lot of people in reviews and message boards. I would guess that these people never read Shakespeare, Marlowe or Hawthorne, or any other classic literature. I'm not going to stand on my intellectual soapbox and call people stupid for not being able to understand it. I do get that a viewer who is being challenged by the language is not able to be impacted as much by the story, but I also think that it is a good thing that our art is still able to reflect our history.