When director Robert Eggers took home the Best Director Award for his feature film debut The Witch at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the art house buzz was immediate. Not particularly a genre often recognized at prestigious film festivals such as Sundance, Horror Cinema had transcended the more marginal “Best Midnight Movie”-variety festival award with The Witch’s major Sundance win—and along with it, Best Feature Film awards from the London Film Festival and New Hampshire Film Festival, and ultimately, the 2015 Indiewire Critics’ Poll winner for Most Anticipated Film of 2016.
Praise from film festival audiences who’d seen the film and were quick to collectively laud the film’s style and terror-including horror icon Stephen King, whose “The Witch scared the hell out of me” tweet has been put to great use in marketing—has made the anticipation all the more ravenous. Today, indie and horror cinema followers alike finally get their look at Eggers titular necromancer herself, as independent distributor A24 unleashes the widest release in their company’s history in the hopes that all this buzz will spell success.
It will be interesting to see how The Witch—a legitimately disturbing and nightmarish film that works exquisitely as both a painstakingly—detailed period piece and a dreamlike exercise in pagan symbolism, horrific imagery, and sustained and incrementally mounting dread—performs as a wide, at-your-local-megaplex release.
“Was it scary?” is traditionally the first thing someone will ask you when you tell them you just caught the latest horror film—and of course, the answer to that varies from person to person. For some, the knock-knock invocation of dead children in the final act of 2007’s El Orfanato was enough to cause eye-shielding white-knuckle panic; similarly, the looming shadowy figure of The Babadook spurred many critics—including The Exorcist director William Friedkin himself—to herald the film as one of the scariest of the year.
Like The Witch, these films are works from directors who are clearly and intently more interested in style, mood, and subcutaneous meaning than simply providing a jolt or peppering the screen with blood and carnage—and for many, the promise of a steady stream of blood and carnage is what they hope for when they put their money down on a ticket to the new horror movie. It didn’t surprise me to see one person get up and leave the cinema during one of the film’s quieter moments—at the same time that I was still catching my breath and steadying my pulse from one of the film’s many unsettling sequences.
What is scary? This reviewer thinks it was terrifying. Set in Puritanical 1630 New England, the film begins as a family—deeply religious William and Katherine, and children Thomasin, Caleb, and twins Mercy and Jonas—leave their colony to start a new life on a plot in the woods, where Katherine soon gives birth to baby Samuel. As the family acclimates, Eggers’ design team infects the surrounding woods with a mounting foreboding that recalls The Blair Witch Project — but unlike its deep-dark-woods companion, The Witch isn’t intent on leaving everything to the imagination. In fact, the film isn’t but 15 minutes underway before it shows us our creepy lady in the trees, a moment that is at once surprising in its early arrival in the narrative, then lingers in a sequence of briefly revealed images of a grotesque act that begs the nervous question—now that we’ve seen that, what else is there to come?
As the family endures one cruel moment after another, ranging from a barrage of supernatural assaults to the resulting psychological torment and paranoia, the physical and emotional investment of the actors lend such a gravity to the proceedings as to suggest the uneasy feeling that what you are watching is real, or that the film, with all its attention to detail and quality of performance and aesthetic, is a historical piece or biopic to be taken very seriously.
As teenage Thomasin, actress Anya Taylor-Joy not only shines in her performance, but is moreover perfectly cast, no doubt in consideration of a soft-skin, full-lipped countenance that recalls The Wicker Man‘s Britt Ekland and the women of 1970’s Hammer Studios “sexploitation” horror films that simultaneously exuded a sense of virginal purity and innocence, while having undeniably sensual, and often unintentionally destructive, beauty—and being shot that way by the filmmakers, such as when Eggers lingers on Thomasin’s cleavage as brother Caleb looks on. The rest of the players in this small cast complement her nicely, speaking in a period English that was carefully studied by Eggers and a team of historians, who also applied their research to all elements of the film ranging from costuming to set design.
But it’s perhaps young actor Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the character on whom much of the film’s folkloric themes and symbols rest, who emerges as the one-to-watch from this able cast. His is the young boy who must struggle with the seductive demons inherent in becoming a man, tempted by sin in the fertile forest at a time when all but intent prayer was sinful.
Furrowed, quiet, internally wrestling, and intently watching, Caleb turns from the Laws of his Fathers when he lets out a small white lie—a grievous sin, to be sure—to protect his father, dishonors his parents by going off into the woods when it’s been forbidden, sneaks more than a few peeks at his sister’s developing body—and always seems deeply uncomfortable about it.
When Caleb wanders one day a little too far and makes a surprising discovery in the woods, what follows was, for this viewer, one of the most singularly haunting, unnerving, and beautiful moments in recent horror cinema—a teenage Grimm Brother’s fever dream, a fantasy dressed in voluptuous dread. A familiar image from a number of fairy tales, turned on its ear, yet strangely feeling unadulterated. Moments later, in a truly rapturous and breathtaking scene that, like many scenes in the film, comes out of nowhere while seeming to fit perfect and inventively, Scrimshaw steals the show in one of the film’s rare no-score, no-sound-effects, nothing but an actor and his performance moments. One could hear a pin drop in my audience—and then things get worse.
It’s exciting to see an independent film like this get a wide release, and I hope audiences give it a chance. It won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who sit back and let it transport them into its quiet gray world, it’s certain to provide quite a few chills—both during, and for this reviewer, long after you’ve left the cinema.
The Witch opens today in Long Beach at AMC Marina Pacifica, Cinemark at The Pike and Edwards Long Beach Stadium 26.
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