I will never love The Witch but I absolutely respect it. It’s a horror movie without jump scares, without the score leading you to every moment; instead it’s a slow build and a more psychological form of terror. It feels earned, and that goes a long way in a landscape bogged down by a wave of films going for the cheapest scares available. I’m never going to be the kind of person who genuinely loves horror movies, I just don’t like being scared that much in these ways, but I appreciate the craft here and hope (likely in vain) that this is a step towards a better path.
In the end credits the makers of The Witch claim that the film was compiled from contemporary reports, diaries, and official records and that the majority of the dialogue is from those real sources. While that’s a chilling credit after the grisly events depicted it’s completely believable. Most of the dialogue is about 16th century farm life and has no supernatural elements at all. It’s 85% a very slow movie about farm calamities and parental favoritism intercut with brief moments of disturbing supernatural terror.
It might seem lazy to compare this movie to The Blair Witch Project but they have more in common than just witches and long amounts of time spent in the woods. I remember people asking me what was so scary about The Blair Witch Project and saying things like “well, there’s a lot of noises in the night and they get scared and then once they found all these men made of sticks” and no one who hadn’t seen the movie understood a damn thing I was talking about. The same thing applies here as I sit thinking of specific imagery to try and sell how scary this movie is, and I come up with things like “they keep showing this one rabbit with really intense eyes” and “you wouldn’t believe how smug this one goat looked” or even “there was a three second shot of a baby and a knife but nothing happened” and none of it comes across. I promise you that’s the scariest rabbit I’ve ever seen on film, but what’s the point? The Witch creates tension by making you care about the characters and then showing how afraid they can be. That and some damn fine rabbit casting.
The human casting isn’t bad either. Aside from some small parts on Game of Thrones this entire cast was unknown to me but I came away very impressed. The period dialogue and thick accents would trip up any cast but even with mostly child actors it all sounded authentic to me. I’m sure it doesn’t actually pass muster with any expert but that’s not the point. Anya Taylor-Joy seems to have literally emerged from nowhere to completely carry this movie as oldest daughter Thomasin. She has to convey a broad range of emotions with a thick language and dialogue gap to cross but she nails it. I was afraid for her, I was sad for her, I raged against the injustice of the societal machine on her behalf, and it was her quiet presence that gets the film through its rather out there climax. Harvey Scrimshaw also impresses doing an outstanding job acting out the struggle of coming of age in a repressive society despite looking like he’s no older than 11, and while I’m sure he’s actually older there’s nothing about him on the internet, leading me to believe all the young people in this movie were grown in a lab solely to make this movie.
It’s hard to give a solid recommendation on The Witch. I almost walked out of the theater I was so uncomfortable in the tail end of the second act even going so far as giving my fiancée instructions if she didn’t want to leave with me. I’m glad I didn’t because none of what I thought was going to happen did, and I quite enjoyed the climax, but it’s hard to shake that feeling. I’ll probably never watch The Witch again but it’s nice to see a filmmaker like Robert Eggers pushing the boundaries of the genre even if it sort of feels like we’re pushing in the direction that leads back to where we’ve been before. Anything that leads away from the Blumhouse style is fine with me.