THE WITCH is good. Pretty goddamn great in fact. It’s got killer atmosphere, it’s scary, it’s original, it’s fiercely well made, the acting is stellar, the effects are sparse but excellent, the screenplay is a marvel and the whole production feels unique, fascinating and endlessly watchable. It works as a drama, it works as a horror film, it works as historical recreation and it even works an arthouse movie that you can just let wash over you like rainy day museum visit.
It’s also the kind of “serious-minded” horror movie that critics tend to go nuts for but mainstream horror fans end up regarding as “overrated,” and I can already tell that this is going to be one of those good but “difficult” movies where people act like assholes if you don’t like it. So lemme just say up front that THE WITCH is great and if you don’t think so you’re wrong… but I understand.
The thing is that while THE WITCH is indeed “scary,” it’s not so much interested in either the visceral or psychological variation on the theme: Not only are there precious few jump-scares, the characters are fairly simple people whose “issues” and “hangups” are fairly easy to wrap our heads around. There aren’t really any “twists” or “cheats” going on until right near the very end and even there opinions are going to differ on whether or not any of that meets the definition.
Rather, THE WITCH is aiming more for atmospheric horror, which is probably the most difficult type of The H Word to pull off on film if what youre going for is “classy” instead of “grueling.” The film doesn’t want to frighten you outright nearly as much as it wants to overwhelm you with an omnipresent sense of dread and hopelessness by creating an unmistakable mix of situation and presentation that effectively conveys that these characters are totally fucked, nothing good is gonna come of anything your witnessing and no matter what it’s going to end badly.
It’s a film that doesn’t want to “scare” an audience viscerally so much as it wants them to stagger out of the theater like they all just woke up from a particularly personal, particularly disturbing nightmare that they can already tell is going to bug them and haunt them all goddamn week – and in that respect, it succeeds mightily: THE WITCH does atmosphere and dread with such easygoing aplomb its hard to believe that its director Robert Eggers’ debut considering that he’s crafted a mood piece worthy of being mentioned alongside ROSEMARY’S BABY and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s VAMPYR.
Our premise: A family of early New England Puritans are kicked out of their village because dad is too damn religious – for Puritans - and forced to make a new start of it as independent farmer on a plot of land that backs up to an ominous-looking forest that also happens to be home to a Witch. Not metaphorically, not revisionist – a straight-up, old-school, child-murdering, black magic practicing, Satan worshipping scary old crone Witch lives in the forest and makes it her business the torment the family for the duration. That’s probably the first and biggest surprise of the whole production. Ever since THE CRUCIBLE, fiction about Witchcraft in Puritan times has defaulted to the Salem paradigm i.e. there are no witches it’s just hyperreligious assholes doing what they do.
But THE WITCH takes the idea of Witches existing in the form the Puritans imagine them to exist as a given for the duration of its runtime; which is likely going to be jarring even for seasoned horror audiences who’ve been taught to expect certain things from movies – particularly from movies that are as impressionistic and character-focused as this is – when it comes to this kind of monster as an antagonist.
After more than a few decades of movies preferring to clear separate symbolic fears from literal ones in a clearly-defined way, it takes a bit of adjustment to realize that THE WITCH is “making a point” but also playing things relatively straight – as in: Yes, the presence of the Witch and her things she inflicts on the settlers are symbolic of the deleterious effects of religious radicalism and Puritan patriarchy on their psyches in terms of the older children being frighteningly ill-equipped to deal with their emergent sexuality, the father being incapable of acknowledging that he’s utterly incapable as a provider and everyone else having to grapple with the fallout thereof thanks to a strict Calvinist belief-system that teaches them that they’re inherently unworthy just by virtue of being human… but there’s also literally a Witch.
…and also a goat who may or may not be The Devil, because the film makes every effort to be as authentic to the way Puritans typically imagined that Satanism and Black Magic in the wilderness of the New World actually “worked,” right down to the main characters unusual but eventually hypnotic way of speaking their lines.
Like I said, I completely understand why not everyone is going to groove on this film’s particular wavelength, but if you can get there its well worth the effort. It may not be the visceral shocker that some have made it out to be (it puts it’s nastiest foot forward right at the beginning, for one thing) but it’s a wholly unique wonder of a thing in its own right, aiming to fill an audience with dread that comes from realizing that these people are trapped in their own doom and we’re trapped with them. And it works.