New & Now: “The Witch”

The internet has made made communication, entertainment, and buying things you really don’t need at the click of a button incredibly easy, but it’s also made being a fan of anything difficult. Oh sure, you can find thousands, perhaps even millions of people who like the same thing you do, whether it be Star Wars or Tuvan throat singing (though it may be a bit easier for the former), but among those millions of people are far too many contrarian sourpusses who like to spend a lot of time arguing about largely meaningless things, such as what qualifies someone as a “real” fan. That’s a popular argument in horror movie fandom (if you don’t own Goblin’s complete discography, you’re probably not), along with if certain movies even deserve to be described as “horror.” The rise of indie horror in recent years has been a particularly heated subject of debate–it’s too “artsy,” it’s for hipsters and not “real” horror fans, it’s simply not scary. No matter that “scary” is subjective, if it’s not somehow scary for everyone then it doesn’t count.

The biggest, or at least, loudest criticism of indie horror is that it’s simply boring. If by boring you mean that the plot allows time for character development, or more than ten minutes goes by without someone being stabbed or strangled to death, then sure, I guess it is boring. You might also think that a movie like The Witch, Robert Eggers’s writing and directing debut, is boring, but you’d be incorrect.

The movie opens with a Puritan family being driven out of their New England plantation, for reasons which are never quite clear (though it’s likely that they’re too Puritanical even for other Puritans). Family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) decides they’ll go it alone, and they settle in a distant, isolated forest clearing. A quiet life in service to the Lord doesn’t last very long, however, when their youngest child, baby Samuel, disappears. They never find out what happened to him, but we do, and it’s nothing good.

This devastating event is but the first in a series of misfortunes for the family. Their crops fail, and they find themselves quickly running out of food. Matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) is driven almost mad with grief over the loss of Samuel. Oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who already blames herself for Samuel’s disappearance, struggles with her own sense of sin and guilt, further complicated by impending womanhood. Oldest son Caleb, troubled at his urge to sneak peeks at Thomasin’s barely developed cleavage, has a terrifying encounter in the woods that leaves him catatonic. Perhaps most disturbingly, younger siblings Jacob and Mercy are obsessed with one of the animals on the farm, a goat named Black Phillip, even claiming that he speaks to them.

The deeply pious William initially claims that there’s an upside to this, that even the loss of Samuel is a sign of God’s presence in their lives, a test of faith to make them stronger and better Puritans (consider it a 17th century spin on “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”). However, it soon becomes clear even to William that God has nothing to do with what’s happening to the family. To quote Tom Waits, God’s away on business, leaving William, Katherine, and their children alone to contend with the evil that moves ever closer to their home.

I will tell you right now, if you go into The Witch expecting non-stop action, you will be disappointed. Similar to Rosemary’s Baby (and if you wouldn’t classify Rosemary’s Baby as horror you need to sit down and reassess your life), it’s an unnerving slow burn. We know that something terrible is going to happen eventually, and that growing sense of dread, exacerbated by the helplessness and isolation of the characters, leaves a dull ache in the viewer’s stomach. These are decent people completely at the mercy of forces beyond their comprehension, that seem to mock the very fabric of their own beliefs, and anticipating their fates is a grueling experience.

William could have easily been a one-note character, an ogre who uses the Bible as an excuse to terrorize his family, but is surprisingly sympathetic. This is a man who is so devoted to God’s plan, and his role as a humble servant, that he refuses to allow himself the comfort of believing that maybe his infant son was fast tracked to Heaven, even though he wasn’t baptized. He encourages his family to trust that they are doing the right thing in God’s eyes, that to serve God means to suffer a little every now and then, but even he eventually realizes that there may be more going on here than he can bear, let alone understand. As the movie draws to its bleak climax, he seems to be staggering in shock and confusion, as if someone has literally pulled the rug out from underneath his feet.

A movie with this kind of pacing won’t work without actors selling the hell out of it (no pun intended), and the acting in The Witch is remarkable, particularly by Anya Taylor-Joy, and the awesomely named Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb. Newcomer Scrimshaw, during a gut-wrenching scene that takes place after Caleb’s unholy encounter in the woods, puts more raw, tormented emotion in three minutes than a lot of adult actors can manage in two hours. If award shows ever really gave any consideration to horror movies, both these kids would come away with armfuls of trophies.

Is The Witch scary? Not in the standard sense of the word, no. Is it disturbing? It is absolutely disturbing, with no shortage of imagery that will stick in my sub-conscious for a very long time. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and have gotten largely burned out on being inundated with severed heads and spurting throat wounds in lieu of a plot, and paper-thin characters who serve little other purpose but to stand around waiting to die. Regardless of whether or not The Witch qualifies as “real horror,” I’ll take gooseflesh over gross-out any day.

The Witch is currently in theaters

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