Film Reviews (with Mary Beth): The Witch (2015)

MARY BETH MCANDREWS
FILM COLUMNIST

Witch movies are a mixed bag.  Not since a film like Suspiria have witches felt scary in a film. But finally, with the help of a new director by the name of Robert Eggers, witches aren’t just old hags in pointy hats anymore. They’re evil, gross, and scary and Eggers has put them back on the horror radar in his directorial debut, The Witch: A New-England Folktale. It takes horror conventions made popular in The ShiningRosemary’s Baby, and even typical teen horror and creates something entirely different. It stands with recent films like It Follows and The Babadook as a horror-dread film that has polarized the horror film community.

The Witch centers on a family of Puritans in the 1630s, 60 years before the Salem witch trials took place. Will (Ralph Ineson), his wife (Katherine Dickie), and four children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are banished from their small New England township. Will embraces this sentence, thinking their family can start their own life on the edge of the woods. They are devout followers of God, terrified of his wrath and motivated by one thing: entering Heaven. However, it seems that their love of God cannot save them from crop failure, strange noises in the woods, and even the disappearance of their children. Paranoia begins to grip the family and speculations fly as to who is causing their misfortunes.  Nothing destroys a family like paranoia.

Interestingly enough, The Witch vaguely reminds me of a typical teenage horror movie: the family moves away from the familiar, the oldest child hates everything about the change, they are alone, teased by their siblings, and to top it all off, become the target of some evil force. While Thomasin is girl of the 1630s, she can be compared to a girl in any late 20th/early 21st-century horror film. This again goes to show that Eggers borrows from so many horror tropes to make the familiar, unfamiliar.

The performances in this film are stellar, with the most impressive performances coming from the children. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw have very bright acting careers ahead of them. The entire cast takes the archaic speech of the early Puritans and makes it convincing. While some may find it hard to understand, it transported me to that time and drew me even deeper to this world Eggers created.

Eggers’ attention to detail is what makes this film so convincing.  He spent over four years researching every aspect of this film. In the end credits, it explains that every word in this film came from first-hand accounts, such as letters and diaries, written around that time period. Each costume piece was also painstakingly designed by Eggers and costume designer Linda Muir to portray both historical accuracy and the progressive unraveling of their characters.

One of the main issues with this movie, though, is how it’s been marketed. Trailers and ads declare that The Witch is the scariest movie of the decade along with other hyperbolic statements, very obviously trying to draw everyone, not just die-hard horror fans, to see it in theatres. What ends up happening is pissed off moviegoers yelling throughout the whole movie about how stupid it is. Trust me, it’s been my experience both times I’ve seen the film. This movie is not going to make you jump out of your seat and laugh at your reaction. It’s going to make you uncomfortable, uneasy, and disgusted.  

Despite the haters, Eggers does an exquisite job of creating a tense, dreadful atmosphere, supported by an unnerving soundtrack by Mark Korven. You don’t feel comfortable at any point while watching this film and while it is only 90 minutes long, it feels like eternity, a statement I mean in the most complimentary way.  

The Witch is not a movie for everyone. It’s not even a movie for all horror fans. However, I recommend it to anyone who wants a well-made, well-acted film that will leave you feeling uneasy for days. It’s a film that you need to think about for a few hours and maybe even see again. This is a great debut for Eggers and I can’t wait to see what he creates next. For now, we can credit him for making witches more than wart-covered hags and into something much more menacing.