THE WITCH (stylized as The VVitch for some reason) broke out of Sundance last year on everyone’s minds. First time director, Robert Eggers, even took home the coveted Best Director award, something unprecedented for a debut filmmaker. And now the genre-defining horror film has made its way to a wider audience with mixed reactions. I guess I’m just not really sure what people were expecting, because to me, this was the best horror film in a decade.
The Witch is set in in 1630s New England, following the plight of a puritan family leaving the safety of their village to build a home out in the unexplored wilderness. Unfortunately, they decide to settle in the midst of black magic, where they are harassed and possessed by a witch. This isn’t any ordinary witch and it certainly isn’t like any witch you’ve seen in cinema for quite some time. This old hag is horrifying, and the film does not take long to let that sink in. The tragedies this family goes through throughout the course of the film really make me thankful that I live in a post-Salem Witch Trial world.
I think the main reason general audiences weren’t raving over the movie to the extent that festival audiences were is that the horror genre has been so diluted by meaningless characters and jump scares that anything with atmospheric terror is labeled as “slow” and “boring”. There are no jump scares in the witch. It isn’t gory and no one is tortured. It feels like the characters in the film would react exactly as the people might have in those times. The movie just feels real, which makes it even scarier. Part of the reason it feels this way is because the story was developed through an extensive amount of research on New England folk tales and stories. It’s a true adaptation of what the puritans would have written and told their children. Another reason is that the film was shot with very little artificial lighting. The night/interior scenes are lit with candles and the night/exterior scenes have an excusable amount of artificial moonlight. As THE REVENANT proved, staying away from Hollywood-like lighting can lend an unbelievable level of authenticity to a production.
The most important thing a horror film (or any movie) needs to get right is the characters. They don’t have to be relatable, likable, or attractive, they simply have to be motivated. Too often do we see characters walking into haunted houses for no reason or deciding to risk their lives because that’s the only way to move the story forward. The Witch refuses to follow these tropes. It presents characters that have personalities, goals, and weaknesses. Not a single member of the family falls into a typical stereotype, so we’re always chasing them, trying to figure out how they’re going to react to the situations they find themselves in. This is what makes the film great. Sure it would probably be scary if tortoises played the leading roles, but when you grow attached to a character or even despise one, you’re connecting with them. You want them to succeed. You want them to get eaten by an old witch. Either way, you’re not passive.
Movies like this simply need more traction in the theater. As an avid horror lover, it pains me to see bomb after bomb from the studios. They’re not trying anymore. All I can say is that it’s incredibly refreshing to see such talent from a debut director who is already taking the helm of a new NOSFERATU remake. I can’t imagine anything better suited for this individual. The Witch is in the same league as THE BABADOOK was last year. Casual viewers can’t understand the hype, but true fans see that there’s something more, something new. The genre needs an uplift and Robert Eggers, Jennifer Kent, and David Robert Mitchell may be the ones to bring horror out of its recession (though, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed IT FOLLOWS).
4 out of 5 Stars
Runtime: 1 hour 32 minutes