“The Witch”

Dylan Kunkel and Kai Christiansen

If there’s one thing horror fans learned in 2015, it’s that the genre has been returned entirely to independent filmmakers and production companies. I can’t remember the last time a big-budget major studio horror flick scared the wits out of me, but movies like The Babadook (2014) have shown directorial vision coupled with a modest budget to be a far more potent recipe for spooky success than the CGI driven gore-fests currently being pumped out by giant production companies.The Witch proves this continuing trend, and while it may not be sleep-with-the-lights-on terrifying, it is one of the most genuinely disconcerting movies I’ve seen all year.
The Witch tells the story of an English family starting a new life on the edge of the New England wilderness after spending some years on a plantation a day’s travel away from their new outpost, only to encounter a dangerous presence in the surrounding forest.
This movie immediately brought to mind two films I have reviewed this year; Goodnight Mommy (2014) for its isolated setting and family-centered plot, and The Revenant (2015) for its theme of conquering wilderness and setting of frontier America. However, The Witch feels very different from these films as well as from other recent horror flicks, owing to mood of constant tension achieved through an almost complete lack of camp or reliance on horror tropes.
The cast handle their often difficult roles ably, and this is particularly impressive given the colonial English lilt of the family characters that sometimes obscures large portions of dialogue. I appreciated the element of folklore preservation The Witch’s script devotes itself to. Newcomer director/writer Robert Eggers made a bold decision to take much of the movie’s dialogue from period sources, and this allows the movie to feel more like the natural conclusion of old American legends than an exploitative pastiche of the time period.
Eggers explores many unique viewpoints of the time and place, and though this is his first film, I have no problem believing The Witch’s style is thoroughly his own. Religion, a topic usually handled with a disdainful attitude in any work involving witches, is treated with respect and admiration by Eggers, and though I can’t identify with the family’s Puritan attitude, the script made it easy to find merit in their struggle to protect their beliefs.
You probably won’t enjoy The Witch if you go in expecting a popcorn slasher flick. The scares here are more lingering than jarring, and the film’s mood is one of crescendoing dread rather than the popular horror rhythm of nighttime scares sandwiched between scenes of daylight reprieve.
Fans of “slow-burn”-type horror movies like those of my favorite horror director in recent years, Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, V/H/S), will likely enjoy this movie strictly as an exercise in creeping terror.
Others coming to the movie uninitiated in the style will find a riveting but restrained horror experience that does something few other movies of the type can: force the audience to consider the consequences of the terror while it is unfolding.