There tends to be one movie every year. One horror movie that people say it’s “the best horror movie in years”, or “decades”, or whatever. A couple years ago it was the incredibly tense, and indeed pretty great The Babadook. Last year it was the moody, but ultimately disappointing It Follows. This year, it’s The Witch -the feature debut of Robert Eggers- which fulfills the promise of having deeper, more unusual, interests than your run-of-the-mill horror movie. Whereas It Follows couldn’t quite back up its brilliant conceit -supernatural monsters as metaphor for venereal disease- with a satisfying story, The Witch succeeds thanks to sharp focus on its protagonist’s journey.
This protagonist is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman who has the misfortune of coming of age in seventeenth century New England. Thomasin’s father William (played by Game of Thrones‘s Ralph Ineson) is a deeply religious puritan with a deep and raspy voice. The movie opens with William being accused of being too much of an extremist, and being banished from the local community. Thus, William and his family -which includes Thomasin, her mother Katherine (payed by Kate Dickie, also from Game of Thrones), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and a set of incredibly creepy twins- hop on their carriage and make their way into the wilderness.
The family builds their new home close to a dark forest and a nearby brook, but the screeching soundtrack lets us know things won’t go well for these outcasts. Thomasin is taking care of her newborn brother Samuel, playing peek-a-boo, when the baby mysteriously disappears. We the audience soon learn poor Samuel’s gruesome fate, but the family doesn’t have a clue what happened to the child. In their attempt to deal with such a heavy loss, and the crisis of faith that comes with it, the family’s trust starts to crumble.
The Witch is similar to The Babadook in more ways than one. Both movies’ protagonists are dealing with loss, and both movies are interested in the tension and resentment that said loss can generate in family units. The Babadook focused almost exclusively in a single relationship, between a mother and a son, and used its “villain” as a clear metaphor for the guilt and hate that exists between them. There are more characters in The Witch, and because the movie has things to explore in all of them, it ends up feeling shabbier. Its source of evil is also not as focused as The Babadook‘s.
The evil that haunts Thomasin and her family is mysterious, and doesn’t take a clear form. We know this evil exists -we have seen it- but the family doesn’t. For them, it can take many forms, and they often don’t know where to look for it. Whereas The Babadook played with our expectations that the monster would come every time the characters went to sleep, The Witch plays with letting the audience know more than the family, and finding new, and clever, ways to represent this evil. This makes The Witch a less tense -and perhaps less impressive in terms of pure horror- experience than The Babadook, but also one that was easier for me to enjoy. Be it in the form of an old witch, or a creepy goat, it’s just very exciting to see what form evil will take next.
The most important thing The Babadook and The Witch have in common -and one It Follows lacked- is their investment in character development. The horror genre is known for its disposable characters who are only there to die, but these movies refuse to settle for cardboard players. Their protagonists have clear arcs, and the people around them are complex beings, too. The Witch in particular creates compelling personal dramas for most members of its ensemble. William struggles with his religious stubbornness, Katherine with the grief of losing her youngest child, and Caleb with the bubbling sexuality that is characteristic of pubescent boys.
At the center of all this is Thomasin, who is a firm believer in the God her father has taught her to love, but can’t seem to reconcile her earthly feelings with the pious life her family expects from her. Thomasin is so repressed that it’s hard to spot her arc for most of the movie’s first half, by the end, however, her journey has become very clear, even if it might be a little hard to swallow. In any case, she -and her family- are the reason the movie works so well. These are characters you can invest in, and that’s truly important.
One thing I noticed while watching The Witch, is that its brand of horror is quite unique. The movie isn’t focused in any kind of cheap thrills and jump scares, but in what will happen to these people. I was more concerned with what these characters would do next -often dreading what they could do to each other- than anything that had to do with the actual witch. And don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, the movie makes it very clear very early on that there actually is a witch living in those woods.
Even if the horror comes from the characters’ actions, this is still a deeply disturbing movie. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke uses only natural light -in a perhaps not as impressive, but far more effective feat than The Revenant– and creates some truly evocative, beautiful, and disturbing images. Images that are so carefully created, they can fuel nightmares with their detail, and suggest other levels of horror in their shadows. Specificity is key here, with Eggers subtitling his movie “a New England folktale” and going as far as including a title card that informs us most of the dialogue in the movie is taken from historical accounts of alleged witchcraft.
There is, obviously, a moral problem that comes with setting a movie in the America of the Salem Witch Trials, and imagining that witches were real. These were, after all, real women who were falsely accused and brutally murdered. But The Witch works around this problem quite effortlessly, reveling in the satisfaction of alternative history rather than denying it. If anything, learning that the dialogue in the film was taken from historical accounts makes its final moments all the more fascinating. I doubt there will be an ending this year that will be as unique in the deep well of emotions and possibilities it brings as the last couple scenes of The Witch.
The Witch is a wonderful movie. When it was over, the bros behind me complained it wasn’t scary enough, and that it was more of a drama than a movie. I think they meant to say that this was an actually interesting movie with something to say, and not just another horror movie with nothing but gore and jump scares on its mind.
Grade: 9 out of 10