The Witch Review

Posted: February 23, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

 

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Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Horror cinema has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with films like The Babadook and It Follows receiving high acclaim from critics and managing to break through the white noise of studio filmmaking. I too really enjoyed these films and found them to be head and shoulders above the competition from mainstream Hollywood. Having said that, great as The Babadook and It Follows are, both films are playing within existing formulas, the filmmakers are just executing at a greater and more creative level. I’ve still been waiting for a horror film to push boundaries and deliver a truly awesome and original experience. That wait has finally come to an end thanks to a little film called The Witch.

This is a hard film to write about in terms of plot. The actual story at the heart of The Witch is very simple and to reveal any more than I have is to give too much away. I say this especially given that I went into the film with next to no information. I hadn’t seen a trailer, TV spot, or read any reviews. I didn’t even know the film was set in the 17th century. All I knew was that it was a well-reviewed horror movie and that’s all I needed. Still, the basic premise is that in the 17th century, a puritanical family is exiled from a New England plantation due to religious differences. Upon their exile, the group come to an isolated patch of land at the edge of a large forest where they build themselves a farm and try and make a life for themselves. However the family is haunted by a strange presence from the forest which continually harms them in increasing ways.

The most impressive element of The Witch is the craft. This is Robert Eggers freshman effort, but this doesn’t feel like the work of a first time filmmaker. Eggers has an excellent handle on tone and does a great job building a feeling of dread which gradually increases as the film goes. The film also has some really gorgeous cinematography and the score is excellent too. The film’s style is significant, not just because of how well-executed and engrossing it is, but for the ambitions. It feels like Eggers is trying to tap into something grander than just the base story. The film has a slightly abstract feel. Despite a relatively simplistic story, the film often keeps things hidden or just out of view. There may be a powerful supernatural element in the film, but the central family clearly had a lot of problems before hand and it’s also pretty clear these issues are in some ways influenced by the family’s strong religious convictions. The film certainly functions as a metaphor for the consequences of radical belief. Additionally, the score and cinematography evoke a real sense of mystery even when the plot seems so straightforward.

It is perhaps a disservice to go too deep discussing the film’s meanings and ambition because this does function extremely well just as a work of horror filmmaking. A creepy atmosphere is set in the opening scene which only rises as the film moves forward. There are also some set-piece moments which are truly frightening and masterfully executed. It should also be noted that the bulk of the film is set either in the forest or on the family’s rather plain village. And yet in spite of these seeming limitations, Eggers does a fantastic job creating horrific and memorable imagery which sticks out. It should be noted however that the film is very far removed from the type of horror movies a moviegoer raised only on Hollywood will be used to. This is a slow paced film which is very abstract, steeped in old language, and lacking conventional exposition or jump scares. For me, this was great, and far more effective than most mainstream horror films, but anyone just looking for some fun scares might be disappointed.

The Witch is the best horror film I’ve seen in years. Not only does the film excel as a work of horror filmmaking, but Robert Eggers seems to genuinely want to push the medium to say something more. This is a wonderfully well-crafted film with great scenes, interesting characters, and some very provocative ideas. So will the film help spearhead a revolution in horror filmmaking? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Despite the excellent reviews, the film is already developing a backlash on social media from people who went in unprepared for something so abstract and different. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of course, but I sincerely hope that the backlash doesn’t convince studios to pull support for films like The Witch. I love this movie, and I’d love to see even more daring horror cinema in the years to come.

A

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