Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: The Witch (2016)

The Witch (2016)

Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

Score: 4 out of 5

The Witch is 2016's version of The Babadook or It Follows, or to give older examples, Rosemary's Baby and Let the Right One In. It's one of those "thinking man's" horror films that critics and horror geeks tend to absolutely adore as some of the scariest things they've ever seen, but which general audiences inevitably find to be slow, ponderous, and even boring -- and while I really enjoyed all of the films I just mentioned, this one included, it's easy to see why many people don't like them. There rely less on shock and guts and more on atmosphere and dread, building a sense of unease around seemingly ordinary events and running a much darker undercurrent beneath them. Ideally, this style creates an experience where the viewers never truly feel safe, and are left looking over their shoulders as they leave the theater, one that's less "going to Orlando for Halloween Horror Nights" and more "getting lost on the way to Universal and wandering into the wrong part of Orlando at night". On the flip side, it doesn't provide the immediate thrills and chills that have been the standard in the mainstream horror genre since the days of classic Universal. It's the arthouse approach to horror, and like much arthouse cinema, it tends not to have wide appeal. I'm surprised that so many such films have been getting wide theatrical releases at all lately.

I'm definitely not disappointed, though, because The Witch is still a standout. It's an exploration of a man whose fervent religious devotion and counterproductive pride leave him blind to his ineptitude as a provider for his family, all against the backdrop of a good old-fashioned wicked witch stalking the woods and picking them off one by one. The story leaves itself wide open for interpretation, and it makes highly effective use of atmosphere, music, and its rural New England setting (actually filmed in northern Ontario, but they make up for it with how they showed their work on the place and time) to slowly, but surely, scare my pants off. Like I said, it's not for everyone, but for the sort of horror fan who knows what they're in for, it's a delicious treat.

The film is set in colonial-era Massachusetts, where a man named William and his family have been exiled from their town due to his outspoken religious views being too extreme even for the local Puritan rulers, who he sees as having grown wayward. Establishing a farm in the wilderness, William, his wife Katherine, and their children -- the young woman Thomasin, the adolescent boy Caleb, the fraternal twins Jonas and Mercy, and the infant Samuel -- struggle to make a living for themselves as they, especially William, find themselves out of their element trying to survive in the wilderness... and that's before a witch living in the woods starts to menace them. The witch here isn't a metaphor for anything here, nor is it hysteria on the part of the family -- no, it's a literal wicked witch who kidnaps and sacrifices Samuel, seemingly causes all manner of mishaps around the homestead, and tempts the family into sin. The family dynamic breaks down as people start accusing each other of witchcraft, bringing long-simmering tensions to the surface in the process, while William is forced to confront his failings as the head of his household.

Like many arthouse horror films, The Witch stands out as a result of what it doesn't show. This isn't a film about crazy, campy displays of black magic; rather, outside of Samuel's disappearance, the witch's presence is seen in things going wrong. William's musket misfires and burns his face while he's trying to shoot a rabbit, which is implied to be the witch in disguise. A goat's udders start producing blood instead of milk. Caleb and Thomasin disappear in the woods when their horse is startled, and the family dog is killed. Only about halfway in do the signs of the witch's presence grow more overt, and even then, the special effects are kept sparse until the last five minutes. This is a film that strives less for spells and spider-walking and more for historical accuracy, in both the real-life details of the setting and in its depiction of witchcraft as the Puritans of the time believed it to be. Much of the dialogue is lifted straight from period court documents and accounts, right down to the accurate use of "thee" and "thy" (they mean "you" and "your", respectively, not "the"), all delivered impressively by a talented, mostly unknown cast that gives a uniquely archaic rhythm to it. The main set looks like they filmed this in at an outdoor "living history" museum with the amount of attention to detail. It felt like I was transported back to colonial times, lending authenticity to the environment and putting me in the frame of mind where I could accept the increasingly outlandish goings-on. With help from a haunting choral score and direction by writer/director Robert Eggers (a former production designer, which shows) and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke that makes the woods outside the homestead look downright evil, I got the sense that malevolent forces were slowly closing in on this family, and that there was not a damn thing they could do to stop them. They can't run, they can't hide, and they can't turn to God. In short, they are doomed. It was slow, but steady, and always felt like it was moving towards a horrifying conclusion -- and while the ending left many events wide open to reinterpretation, it lived up to the promise of what had built up to it.

From that base, the film proceeds to explore and dismantle the Calvinist belief system that informs and underlies the thoughts and actions of the family. This is most pronounced with our two main characters, William and Thomasin. William, seemingly a paragon of rugged masculinity on the surface, is in fact a terrible father, precisely because of his obsession with the idea of being the "man of the house" who holds supreme authority. Katherine constantly bemoans how it was his staunch commitment to being right all the time that ultimately put him and his family in this situation; even before the witch showed up (or has she been stalking them this whole time?), they were facing a poor harvest and sick animals that necessitated him and Caleb to go out and hunt in order to feed their family. Only when the darkest hour arrives does he finally break down and face the possibility that maybe, just maybe, his pride caused him to seriously fuck up. Few people are more alienated by William than the beautiful teenager Thomasin. Her emerging sexuality leaves her chafing at the restrictions of her strict father, whose partially self-imposed exile has left her far away from any suitors. The fact that Caleb, who's hitting puberty himself, has nobody but his older sister to think about only makes the situation that much creepier and more unnerving. Without spoiling anything, William's personality flaws and his dehumanizing faith ultimately leave him and his family vulnerable to the very forces that his Bible warned about, helping the witch more than anything. The family provides this film's dramatic core to lend weight and resonance to the horrors they face, and it was almost entirely because of them that the scares this film landed were able to hit as hard as they did for me.

The Bottom Line:

If you've read this far, you probably already know if you're in the target audience or not. The Witch didn't quite sail over the top into "instant classic" territory for me, but it was still a highly effective slow burn. If these sorts of atmospheric and artistic horror movies are more your speed, then it comes highly recommended.

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