Excited as I was for The Witch, I knew I might be disappointed. I mean, the stuff surrounding The Witch is suspect, right? It’s an old-timey horror flick conjured by a first-time director — one that shambles into multiplexes during the dreary month of February, carrying the weight of four untested young actors, an ungainly subtitle, lofty ambitions, period-piece trappings, a meager budget, and subject matter that’s been picked clean by everyone from Arthur Miller to Lois Duncan. In hindsight, I probably should have read the warning signs and steered clear. I had no reason to believe The Witch was anything more than a forgettable movie with an unforgettable trailer.
As such, I’d like to thank Random Back Row Jerkoff #397, whose impromptu “thbbft! what the fuck was that?” right as the film ended really helped ground me and clarify my thoughts on The Witch. This, my friends, is most certainly not a good movie. No, far from it … it’s a great movie — and, in the words of the lone brave soul who dared to shout back at Jerkoff #397, it’s “fucking amazing!” From start to finish, this is an instant classic for fans of the kind of strange literate horror that’s been anomalous since Reagan took office. That it’s so intensely unappealing to the opening-night peanut gallery only confirms its worth: good or bad, it takes a very special movie to provoke that kind of reaction, and The Witch is definitely no Sharktopus.
After all, not every movie can afford to depict a genetically engineered killing machine wreaking havoc in Mexico.
The Witch’s horrors, alas, are simpler: exiled from the village proper after a religious disagreement, a Puritan family boils over in a slow cooker of circumstance, isolation among miles of forest, prescribed gender roles, sexual frustration and dysfunction, and a shared delusion motivated by their beliefs. They’re eating rotten corn after a particularly meager harvest. Mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) and father William (Ralph Ineson) have differing ideas about how they might make ends meet. Their adolescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) has taken to staring down his older sister Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) shirts with some mixture of curiosity, guilt, and wonder. Their young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) play obscure games with the family’s melanistic goat. Oh yeah … and the witch o’ the wood has apparently kidnapped their baby.
Jerkoff #397 may have been unmoved by all of this domestic and supernatural strife, but I was impressed by how skillfully writer/director Robert Eggers balances what should be too many elements for one horror film to contain. This is a film that shows us the witch o’ the wood in the first few minutes and uses it as a starting point for a complex, subtle exploration of how witch panics developed in the way-back-when. Reflect on that contradiction for a minute: there is an actual witch in The Witch, but it’s mostly about how awful blood relatives could be to each other during witch panics, which we modern skeptics generally write off as the byproduct of of hokum. How can the same flick present witches as both illusory and real without disintegrating into a puddle of contradictions? What if I told you this is the least intriguing choice Eggers makes over the course of his debut film and two other choices give Magnolia a run for its money in the “this is probably going to look silly, but let’s give it a shot” department? Furthermore, how does Eggers show us the witch so early without overusing her by the final credits crawl? That’s a kind of restraint I can only imagine.
Ultimately, The Witch works as a horror film. It’s a slow-burn, sure, but it’s a tense ninety minutes that keeps gathering steam with each successive scene. Instead of jump scares, Eggers serves up cumulative dread while composer Mark Korven hammers on arhythmic strings. At first, his actors talk over each other — then they yell, as mounting chaos yields chamber-piece cataclysms. While the prevailing complaint seems to be the lack of subtitles, I’m not 100% convinced I want to know what, exactly, they’re shouting over each other in thickly accented colonial English, as my confusion seems to be thematically appropriate.
Given its frantic, violent last act, Eggers’ most daring choice might be the film’s final shot, a placid, lyrical coda that passes for a happy ending of sorts, depending on what you bring with you into the theater. I’m sure Jerkoff #397 hated the ending most of all — stuck there, watching his greatest fear realized with the greatest ambivalence, scraping at the limits of his own intellect, feeling the first pangs of an existential crisis he couldn’t understand knot his stomach as he witnessed a film that wasn’t made with him in mind, rearranging the shards of his fractured ego, waiting for the credits so he could assert his dominance and shout in the face of all that he could not comprehend: “thbbft! what the fuck was that?”
“Fucking amazing,” another man replied, deaf to all the pain and terror that raspberry concealed. And fellow patrons laughed. And the universe continued, indifferent. Maybe the fun of The Witch (not that it’s much fun) comes from watching this behemoth of a horror flick lurch to the front of the auditorium, face filmgoers, and force them to work through their shit.Liked This? Share It!