Good luck to those horror films that open after “The Witch” which starts its run in theaters today, Friday, February 19, 2016. Whatever comes after it this year will have a lot to live up to following one of the best horror movies to come down the pike in years. Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is not only filled with dread, high production values and superb acting, but it plays incredibly realistically, giving it all the more resonance. He creates such a complete world, that you’re totally immersed in it. And that’s one astounding achievement considering the story takes place in the 17th century.
There are two key essentials to any great horror. One, the scares have to be believable no matter where and when the world is, be it a Black Lagoon or the dreamscapes of Freddie Kruger. And two, the audience must relate to the characters whose lives are in jeopardy. The “Friday the 13th” series may have been hugely successful, but after the second or third film, audiences starting cheering Jason Voorhees and his mad bloodletting because his teen victims stopped being characters we cared about. Fortunately, “The Witch” delivers on both of these key needs, and spectacularly so.
It starts with a pious, but well-meaning family, banned from their pilgrim community because they are too religious. Yes, even with the puritans of that rigidly religious society, father William and his wife Kate are simply too fanatical. Thus, they move their five children and worldly possessions far away from the town and attempt to start over. Unfortunately, the papa (played by the baritone-voiced Ralph Ineson) is not much of a hunter or farmer, and soon the question of food for the table becomes a very real problem.
He is afraid of the wrath of his tightly-coiled wife (a perfectly period Kate Dickie) and starts lying to her left and right. He sneaks his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) out into the woods to hunt with him and snatches her silver cup heirloom to trade for supplies. He also lets their oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) take the blame for the disappearance, and it creates quite the rift between mother and child. As you can see, the father’s sins alone are piling up fast enough for the devil to take note.
Who else in the family is following down such a immoral path? All of them, actually. The cleverness of Eggers’ script comes in how he lays out these sinners. Father is passive/aggressive. Mother is not only rigid, but she’s unforgiving and jealous of her oldest daughter’s burgeoning beauty. And the kids are all catty, spiteful, lusty or harbor secrets themselves. Eggers shows that even in supposedly religious homes like this one, sin is wholly too easy to partake in, and attempting to bury it without confronting it head on can only lead to more evil.
And lead to more evil, it does. But is it just transgressions or is Satan himself involved? One of the best parts about this film is that the audience is never quite sure if this is all Beelzebub’s machinations, or if it’s just the psychosis of the family as they grow more and more dysfunctional. True, there seems to be a witch out in the wilderness who has stolen the family’s unbaptized baby. And she seems to have turned into a comely enchantress to seduce Jacob when he gets lost in the woods (There’s a metaphor for you!) Still, is she a true minion of Satan? Or is one of the children truly channeling the enemy of God?
The family’s chatty twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) claim they’re talking to one of the family’s goats – a regular stand-in for the Devil throughout history and lore – and indeed, they do seem like fiendishly misbehaving urchins. But perhaps their tantrums are just typical for children of that age. But the family doesn’t know what to do with them, and later in the story, they ban them to the barn with the other farm animals. That’s not just terrible parenting, but that may be playing right into the witch’s or the devil’s plans.
And what about the mercurial Thomasin? Sometimes she is sweet and forlorn, and other times she mouths off to her father by calling him a hypocrite. Worse, she pretends to be a witch to torment her younger sister. And wasn’t she watching the baby when it disappeared? Is she as innocent as she pleads, or is she aware of what puberty is doing to her and its power over men?
These are the questions the film raises throughout and it keeps the audience guessing. Eggers ensures that we don’t ever fully know as he shoots his shocking image as mostly quick images. And he doesn’t distinguish flights of fancy from reality. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker not spoon feed his audience. Instead, he guarantees our investment in his characters and their turmoil by never assuring us just who is evil or not.
And he does it by enhancing such storytelling with some of the best production values ever in a horror film. He recreates the “Crucible” period brilliantly with his team’s masterful production designers, costumers and cinematographer. “The Witch” also boasts some of great acting, with the thespians handling tricky Olde English period dialogue like it’s second-nature. And the child performers are incredible across the board, handling scenes of terror and possession with knowing far beyond their years. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw, in particular, are a marvel to watch as they match the more experienced and superb acting of their adult counterparts.
Special kudos must be given to Mark Korven as well for his ultra-eerie score. It creates such a discombobulating sense of dread that every note of it puts you further on the edge of your seat. Horror is so rarely remembered at Oscar time, but this one deserves recognition on all the levels mentioned.
Still, if you’re expecting the typical kinds of jolts and jump scares you find in most horror movies made these days, this isn’t the venture for you. “The Witch” builds its frights as a whole rather than as set-pieces. It makes every image and every word uttered chill the bone. It’s rare for a film to sustain such dread all the way through, but this one does.
And the last 10 minutes of the film deliver as many frights as 10 other horror movies combined. Suddenly, the evil that has always been suggested or around the periphery leads to a very large body count and yep, Satan himself actually shows up , albeit in shadow. The contract he has ready for one of the characters to sign is terrifying, as is the dance of exaltation to him immediately after. The fiery and lusty gyrating will haunt your dreams. But any horror fan, or movie fan for that matter, should want to see it and then marvel at how well “The Witch” will stay with you.