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Film Review: The Witch (2015)

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SYNOPSIS:

New England, 1630: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness, with five children. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another.

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REVIEW:

It seems like every year brings us a new horror film that’s supposed to blow away audiences world wide. You know what I mean, films that make major impressions at film festivals like Sundance. Films that people start whispering about at first, and slowly as time goes by, those whispers grow to a cacophonous howl by the time the films finally get released to the public at large. And without question, these films generally divide audiences straight down the middle. Two years ago it was The Babadook, Last year it was It Follows, both of these films rode into their general release riding high on a wave of positive reviews that made it sound like they were both the best horror films ever made. And while both of these films did indeed receive critical acclaim from nearly every critic that saw them, they both divided audiences straight down the middle. Personally, I didn’t find any one of them particularly scary at all. Well made films for sure, but hardly scary.

But I have associates that swear up & down that these films were two of the scariest films they’d ever seen (my associates can be a bit too boisterous at times). I didn’t find a (hardly seen) mythical creature that may or may not be the product of a over stressed woman’s imagination (The Babadook) very scary. And the prospect of being followed by a creature that (at times) makes itself up to look like an old woman (It Follows) is about as scary to me as an episode of Scooby Doo.

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This year, all the hubbub is surrounding a film called The Witch. Its trailer debuted last year, and while it was indeed a creepy thing to see, it gave little indication of what it was actually about. Shortly after the trailer debuted, we started hearing the rumblings of critics who’d seen it at various festivals. All of them falling over each other to tell everyone how scary it is, how our blood will freeze over as we watch it, how we’ll all piss our collective pants because we’d be too scared to go to the f**king bathroom. Histrionics such as these seem to be par for the course as of late.

But I refuse to drink the Kool aid.

Well, maybe a sip or two…

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A devoutly Christian couple, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their children find themselves banished from their community because they accused the others of not hemming closely enough to the gospel. But rather than look at this banishment as a hardship, the family take to their banishment rather handily. They find a nice spot at the edge of the woods, and fashion as nice of a life as can be expected considering the circumstances. Mind you, life isn’t easy for them, but they fashion themselves a decent, if hardscrabble, life. But life for them goes south when their newborn baby suddenly disappears while under the care of oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). After that, the tragedies begin to pile up for the family.

The crops fail, the rabbit traps don’t catch any rabbits, and poor Katherine can do nothing but cry, mourn & pray for her long gone infant child. As it turns out, there really is a witch in the woods, and the film is to be commended for not shying away from the infant’s fate at the hands of the witch. She grinds the babies bones to dust, then spreads that dust (& blood) all over her body. As the film continues, fear, hatred, paranoia and distrust begin to take a hold of the family, and because there isn’t any one real reason that the family can pin their woes upon, they slowly begin to believe that Thomasin is the witch that’s causing all of their grief. Poor Thomasin can’t believe the hatred being tossed at her, and in the end she has to defend herself from her parents, especially her mother, to save her life. But that comes with complications as well.

Writer/Director Robert Eggers reportedly researched this particular period in time for four years to make sure his script was true to the era, and he succeeded completely. The black & white cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is crisp, clean and sharp, making the film look as grim & unforgiving as it needs to be. The characters speak in English, but it’s 16th century English. Personally, I don’t understand all of the complaints over the dialogue. Granted, some of it is a bit indecipherable, but that’s due more to the characters accents, not to what they were actually saying, it’s still English, so stop complaining. Everyone in the film gives remarkably true performances, with young Anya Taylor-Joy stealing the show as the tormented Thomasin. I’ve never heard of her before this film, but she’s definitely a face to watch for in the future. Her commitment to her character is astounding for one so young.

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Those who have derided The Witch as not being the film they expected have a point. It’s being pushed as a horror film, and critics from festivals its played at have fallen over themselves calling it the scariest thing they’ve ever seen. I honestly think that these reviews come from people who don’t watch a lot of horror films, and ought to be taken with a grain of salt. The Witch isn’t a horror film in my estimation, it’s more of a historical drama with horrific undertones. But the last 10 minutes of it are some of the scariest minutes I’ve sat through in a long while. It was during the finale when I realized that in its own sinister way, The Witch was subtly digging its way into my psyche, and I was really unnerved by the finale. I found myself appreciating all of the work Eggers put into the film. The horrific elements in it work extremely well, and I ended up enjoying it as a whole quite a bit.

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I had visions of The Blair Witch Project (1999) as I watched The Witch, and there are parallels. Blair Witch arrived on a wave of positive critical reviews, and it’s brilliant online campaign helped to make it something of an event on it’s original release. The Witch didn’t have that online campaign, but it had the same hype. They were both directed by unknowns, and they both divided their audiences straight down the middle. You either loved Blair Witch or hated it, and the same goes for The Witch. It’s polarizing audiences everywhere it plays. I, for one, rather enjoyed The Witch but I fully understand any and all vitriol passed its way, it isn’t for everyone. But it worked for me, it’s pace is indeed glacial, and some of the dialogue might not make much sense at times, but as a whole the film works. I think its telling that everyone is upset that it’s not a particularly horrifying film, yet the first thing you see once the film starts is a title card that says The Witch: A New England Folk Tale, so even the creators aren’t calling it a horror film.

If you’re looking for a balls to the wall horror film, The Witch is most definitely not for you. It’s far too slow to get your blood racing. But if you’re looking for something with a deliberate pace, something dramatic and even a bit thought provoking, with a truly eerie finale, then The Witch will satisfy your cravings.

The Witch – 3.5 out of 5 shrouds.

4 comments

  1. You said that critics who said it was a scary film should be taken with a grain of salt but then you said that 10 minutes of the film are some of the scariest scenes you’ve sat thru in a while?
    Aren’t you contradicting yourself?

     
  2. The Black Saint

    Hi Matt, I said that critics who found The Witch scary probably haven’t seen many horror films, and I stand by that statement. Personally, I wasn’t scared by most of it at all, it’s far more of a historical drama with a few horrific overtones.

    But the last ten minutes worked for me as far as being scary. I found that they worked as both intense & creepy. And I really haven’t seen too much this year that has scared me much at all.

     
    • I’m a horror veteran, and I’m with you in that the film is only scary in parts. However, it’s incredibly rare that I get scared at all in a horror movie, and the last ten minutes of this were indeed horrifying, something that hasn’t happened to me in a very long time. If a horror movie can legitimately scare a hardened veteran such as myself, I don’t have any problem with critics saying this is a terrifying movie because, well, at times it is.

      I think you’re even admitting as much, but then still criticizing the hype from the critics. The bottom line is that the people upset with this movie were hoping for a worse movie, one that hits all the right horror tropes they’re interested and comfortable with. Horror is like a hobby to some people. I just like good movies, and this is an incredibly effective horror movie. And yes, it is horror. A horror movie tries to elicit fear out of its audience, and this sure wasn’t trying to make people happy.

      Horror hobbyists give horror a bad name when they turn up their noses at truly great horror movies like this, and that kind of ticks me off. They come off as a clique who feel like the rest of movie fans are outsiders. And when the traditionally non-horror interested critics praise a movie in your genre you feel encroached upon, and always do one of two things: Either you try to classify it as “not really horror”, or you say that it’s “not actually that scary” and “overhyped”. This just re-inforces that you are not true movie fans, rather you’re just a group of hobbyists.

      There’s nothing wrong with specifically loving the kind of horror that most critics hate, I’m included in this group. But there’s also nothing to be afraid of when a horror movie steps away from familiar tropes and turns out great, and gains a lot of mainstream popularity.

       
      • The Black Saint

        Hi Eric, thanks for reading & taking the time to comment on the review. I truly appreciate honest feedback from all our readers. I’m at something of a loss here though, maybe it’s just me but are you saying that I’m one of those “Horror Hobbyists” that you mention in your comment? Everyone is allowed their opinion, I’m not going to quibble with that. But I’ve been watching/reading horror on film/TV/books for a really long time. A REALLY LONG TIME. I’ve gone through all of the highs & lows of the genre over the past 5 decades, and while I hardly consider my scribblings to be sacrosanct, I do believe I know what I’m talking about when it comes to the genre more often than not. As to The Witch being a horror film, I agree with you – it is indeed a horror film. But when the people who made the film call it a “Folk Tale”, I’m gonna stick to that description.

        As to critics calling it a terrifying movie? I still strongly disagree with their estimation(s). Like you, I rarely get scared at a horror movie any more, and The Witch didn’t get to me until those last 10 minutes. Up to then, I found it to be occasionally gripping, occasionally dull, but fascinating overall. The fact that the last 10 minutes managed to move me are impressive, but the previous 80 minutes didn’t have a scare in them. Atmosphere? Yes. Drama? Yes. But scares? Not for me. My issue with these overzealous critics is what I perceive to be their need to be quoted on the film’s advertising campaign. I have no such need, and I’m always gonna call ’em as I see ’em. There’s a Turkish film currently going around the circuit called “Baskin”, that has been called “The God Damned Scariest Film Of The Year” by a close friend of mine. It’s also been praised by other critics as quite scary, so I was anxious to see it. Lo & Behold when it was over I was barley comatose. I literally have no idea what these people are talking about, especially as the film goes nearly an hour before anything of any note actually happens. Up until then it’s a group of Turkish police eating, drinking, and talking about which animals they’ve f**ked in the past (seriously). It has a few striking images in it’s favor, but I found it tedious & meandering.

        I’m hardly a “Horror Hobbyist”, in fact in some circles I’m considered something of a “Horror Historian”. I’ll never turn my nose up at a film I genuinely enjoy (scary or not), but I will call out a film for being called scary when I feel it isn’t. I hardly expect everyone to agree with me, and I truly appreciate your response to the review. But please don’t lump me in with the horror elitists that stick their heads out of the ground when a film like “The Witch” comes along, but choose to put their heads back in the ground and ignore smaller horror films that don’t get large releases like “We Are Still Here”.

        Watching horror films is what I do. Writing about them is merely the cherry on the sundae for me. Trust me when I say I’m not making a dime doing what I do here and on other websites. I do this because I love horror in all sizes, shapes & forms. And I don’t expect any of that to change for me until my end. I hope you continue to be a reader of whatever’s going on here at Horrornews.net. And once again, thank you for taking the time to not only read my review, but write in about it. It’s people like you that make this fun for me.

         

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