To give the “The Witch” (opening in theaters nationwide Feb. 19) the broad label of “horror film” simply does not give the sincerely unsettling aspects of this film the credit they deserve. Any film about witchcraft endorsed by The Satanic Temple goes way beyond the standard “horror” genre bucket.
In short: Shortly after an exiled Puritan family establishes their isolated homestead in the New England wilderness, their infant child disappears. While they initially believe wolves took the child, clues begin to point to witchcraft. (watch the trailer)
Make no mistake – “The Witch” is not merely a scary little movie about witches in the new world. This is exactly the type of nightmarish cautionary tale the Calvanists would tell each other in hushed whispers and petrify any God-loving Puritan. First-time writer-director Robert Eggers has crafted a film that unnerves and distresses on multiple visceral levels — it depicts how easily an innocent girl can be suspected of evils explainable “only” by witchcraft, and stands as a terrifying story that would only reinforce every Puritanical fear of witchcraft.
Within the first 10 minutes, “The Witch” makes a bold indication of just how far into the darkness this story is willing to go. “Inciting incident” is a woeful understatement that cannot truly represent the disturbing plot point that kicks off this narrative. Just re-imaging this scene is troubling. While the scene itself is disturbing, the film’s grisly first major shocker sets up the rest of the film effectively: basically anything is on table. Eggers quickly establishes that pretty much anything can happen to any other character for the rest of the movie.
But this is where “The Witch” becomes brilliant. Rather than inundating the audience with basic horror tropes, “The Witch” takes its time – allowing its deliberately paced, but truly unnerving, imagery to slam the audience. There are no cheap scares here and this is not a simple monster movie about witches — this film is far more elementally disturbing. This exiled family slowly, but surely, unravels as the situation strains and erodes their faith. While the stark visuals are intense, the slow grind of watching the family psychologically come apart at the seams — as religious zealotry and distrust consumes each of them — is hard to endure.
Eggers deserves credit for the obvious painstaking detail invested in this film – everything from the production design to its costumes and especially its script. This is a intricate, beautifully written screenplay that remains true to the characters convictions and paranoia, while remaining grounded in the 17th century dialect.
Even the fact that the movie’s methodical pacing borders on ‘slow’ in the middle can be forgiven. Eggers fills the spaces between plot points with increasingly intense character dynamics. When the movie becomes less plot driven, he switches gears and “The Witch” becomes much more character driven.
Final verdict: Any and all trepidation going into this movie is completely justified. “The Witch” is a genuinely unsettling and brilliant work of art. That said, theaters should be prepared for a fair share of walk-outs after the first major and shocking scene.
“The Witch” opens in theaters nationwide Feb. 19. This psychological horror film is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.