FEBRUARY 18, 2016
Of all the independently produced horror movies to be granted a wide release after being acquired out of a festival (Sundance, in this case), there is none less likely to become a huge hit than The Witch. And even if I'm wrong (which would be great), that will just mean more people hating it because it's not the kind of typical horror movie they expect to see at their multiplex. The trailers aren't misleading in any way, but I'm sure there will be a healthy percentage of ticket buyers who expect more scares, more gore, more of the title character, etc. - and will be angry that the film is actually thought-provoking, deeply unsettling, and (not saying this as a bad thing) slow-paced, drawing you into its narrative with carefully laid out plot developments. It is the sort of movie that you can expect to see "Worst movie ever!" type "reviews" from people who are used to live-tweeting Sharknado movies instead of paying attention, and fans like myself will certainly be accused of "overhyping" it.
(NOTE - at this point I should note that this review is mostly a month old, based on my press screening in January. I never had time to complete the review due to finishing up the HMAD book, so I went again over the weekend to a normal AMC multiplex for a refresher. And now as I go back to the review, I'd like to marvel, however sadly, at how right I was in the above paragraph, written four weeks ago and left unchanged today. Obviously I know I was not wrong, though an $8m opening weekend for something like this is FANTASTIC and kudos to A24 for taking a chance on such a film.)
Oh, and it's in English, but not the modern kind - writer/director Robert Eggers used old texts and court transcripts to make sure he offered an authentic 17th century voice to his script, making some lines a bit hard to grasp (thick accents don't help) if you're not giving the film your undivided attention, which it richly deserves. Given how I've ended every review on this site (for reasons I can't even recall) I was delighted to hear "What say you?" a few times, but that's probably also the easiest line to mentally translate into what's being asked - during heavy arguments it's likely you'll miss some of the particulars if you let your mind wander a bit. During a low-key scene I actually considered (as a joke) the idea of dubbing the film into a more familiar version of English for the eventual Blu-ray. It would, I think be the only bit of levity you'd find on the disc unless the commentary is uncharacteristically rambunctious.
Because that's the other thing - this is a dark movie. I knew I was going to be in for some trouble just from the trailer, when a young woman playing peek-a-boo with a baby (her little brother, as I discovered in the film - not her son as I originally assumed) is horrified to open her eyes and see that the little guy had been snatched by an unseen presence. I don't like to spoil new movies but to fellow parents I should warn you that he doesn't come back, and his fate can only charitably be described as vague - we are spared any killing blow, but there's enough aftermath to more than make up for it, including the naked witch scattering his remains around as she collects his blood. It's pretty traumatizing, and it's only 15 minutes into the movie - with worse things to come. In the first scene, our protagonist family of seven (two parents, the four older children, and the baby) are driven out of town for being TOO religious (by Puritans! It'd be like someone being considered too conservative for Fox News, or me accusing someone of being way too into Shocker), and once they arrive at their home well outside of the civilized area, they're the only ones we see besides the title character (in brief moments). So with the cast limited to a family and an R rating for graphic violence, you don't need much of an imagination to know that the baby gets off easily in the grand scheme of things.
But again, this isn't a movie about kill scenes or jump scares. These startling moments of violence are meant to be as shocking to the characters as they are to the viewer, and thus there isn't usually much buildup or "traditional" scariness about them. Instead, Eggers devotes his energy into getting under your skin the old fashioned way - long shots, ominous music, and careful editing that delivers the shocks as quick buttons to long buildups. In fact, this movie could have easily been made in the 70s, as it would sit rather comfortably next to occult-driven movies like Satan's Skin and of course The Wicker Man, albeit not as batshit as either of those (for modern films, it reminded me more than once of Sauna, which shares more than the gloomy look). The unsettling tone is established before they even get to the house - you can go in completely blind to this movie and before a single "horror" thing happens (the baby being snatched is the first) you'll probably know you're watching a horror movie, just from how uneasy Eggers is able to make the audience feel with just a few scenes (mostly exposition to explain why they're leaving town).
Another thing setting it apart from most modern horror movies is that the acting is award-worthy across the board. The parents are familiar faces (both from Game of Thrones, in fact - Kate Dickie was Lysa*, and Ralph Ineson played Dagmer Cleftjaw), but the four children were totally new to me, and they were all terrific. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the oldest daughter (the one playing peek-a-boo) who the family starts to suspect is a witch and is thus to blame for all of their bad luck as of late. She's in just about every scene and has to toe a rather tough line (IS she a witch?), but she sells it 100% and pulls off her character's horrible late-film ordeals with ease. But possibly even better is Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the 2nd oldest child who is currently questioning how strong his faith is, worried that his baby brother has gone to Hell since he (like everyone, per their beliefs) was born in sin and never got the chance to atone. Both of them are so good at handling the heavy dialect and just general LOOK of this bygone era that if I didn't know better I'd swear they had teleported from the 1600s and placed as is in front of the camera. Not that the parents were any less authentic, but since I recognized them from other films/shows they couldn't quite escape that disconnect - when they were on-screen I was reminded that I was seeing a (very good) movie, whereas when focus stayed on the older children I was able to get totally immersed in that time and place.
Indeed, I wasn't surprised at all to discover Eggers was primarily a production designer before switching to directing (he has done some shorts, but this is his first feature), as well as a costume designer - he worked on YellowBrickRoad, in fact, making him the go-to guy for creepy New England horror (YellowBrickRoad was shot in New Hampshire; Ontario subbed in here but apart from Canadian horror staple Julian Richings' brief appearance as the judge who orders them out of town, you'd never know it was anywhere but some gloomy New England farmland). Nothing felt out of place, and he and his crew kept things to a minimum inside and out. Sometimes you see a period movie (not just horror) where they pack in old timey props in every nook and cranny of the set as if to hammer home the fact that this was a long time ago, but here they were smart enough to know less is more. And apart from the brief excursions to the woods (and the opening), pretty much the entire movie is set inside their house, so they could (should?) easily pack up the whole prop department and turn this into a stage production.
Then again, if told on stage they'd likely have to drop Black Phillip, the goat that is much loved by the younger children (I know I haven't talked about them, but that's for a reason - I want you to remain blind to their storyline). If the movie has any lightness, it's the unavoidable fact that goats are kind of funny to look at, especially when they're not doing anything in particular and yet they're getting closeups and given silly names like "Black Phillip". I can only pray that a few months after release, when we've all seen it and enjoyed it untainted by anything, some bright spark does a mod to that Goat Simulator game and makes it about good ol' Phil. I would maybe even try to play it again (good lord, that game is terrible - I don't know how people can possibly enjoy it even on an ironic level).
One final thing I want to say without spoiling specifics - you know all of those Return of the King jokes about how many endings it has? This movie has not one but two points where you think it might end and you'd be OK with it, but keeps going and makes things even more satisfying. I loved that! It's almost disappointing when credits come up and you realize Eggers wasn't going to take it a step even further, but I guess I shouldn't be greedy. Needless to say, if you thought the movie lacked what you came for, the last 15 seconds or so should, if nothing else, send you on your way smiling.
I originally ended this review with a plea to see the film theatrically, but after doing just that (and now that it's a success anyway) I would actually rather you, intelligent reader, waits to see the film at home on VOD or Blu-ray, unless you are somehow guaranteed of seeing it in a theater with absolutely no one else around. I have never in my life witnessed such an awful group of people seeing a movie as I did this past Saturday, and I saw plenty of tweets and FB posts that echoed mine. Because the movie is genuinely good and not filled with jump scares, audiences are quick to turn on it, if the language didn't turn them off even sooner. I saw at least four couples walk out in the first half hour, each just as if not more distracting than a cell phone going off (which also happened) or some asshole MST3k-ing the damn thing (ditto). Add in the guy next to me who inexplicably brought his 4-5ish daughter along and had to keep assuring her that it was almost over (he also pulled his cell phone out several times, and after realizing he wasn't going to listen to my requests to put it away, I moved up a row. He kicked my chair in response. Because I'm the bad guy here.) and you have pretty much every moviegoer sin in the world at one screening. Had I not seen the movie already I would have been too distracted to enjoy it or even follow the damn plot (again, thickly accented olde English), and I'd hate for that to happen to you. Dumb people will ruin too many experiences of seeing this terrific film, so it is with a heavy heart that I ask you to wait until you know that the only one to blame for distractions is yourself if you keep your cell handy while watching from the couch. Let the movie whisk you away to its setting, and let it get under your skin the way so few modern genre films ever manage (mostly because they rarely try). If you hate it, that's fine - but at least give it the respect of a proper viewing, one you're sadly not likely to find anywhere that has Star Wars playing in the adjacent screen (yep, I also heard lightsabers and explosions during the quieter scenes, of which there were many). Sigh.
What say you?
*Curiously, there's a horrifying breastfeeding scene involving her character. Weird niche this actress has.