“What went we out in this wilderness to find–leaving our country, kindred, our father’s houses–for what? For the kingdom of God.” Should have stayed home, bro. The Witch opens on February 19 and it’s been spooking the socks off critics since Sundance. The director, Robert Eggers, has previously directed only two shorts–one an adapation of a Grimm fairy tale and the other an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. This impressive feature debut combines the dark whimsy of a fairy tale with the gothic horror of Poe. Slight spoilers ahead:
The film opens with William (Ralph Ineson), the father of a large Christian family, boldly condemning the actions of his church leaders. When they threaten him with banishment he gladly accepts while his wife and children looks on, steeling themselves for a life of isolation off the plantation. Thus begins a Shining-esque family trip to the middle of nowhere in a cabin surrounded by ominous forest. William’s all smiles, though, because he thinks he and God are on the same page and that his isolated existence will be a happy one. His family shares his positive disposition for a brief time, but that all changes when the baby of the family, Samuel, goes missing. Unfortunately for them, a Witch occupies the surrounding wood and swiftly turns Samuel into full-body moisturizer. Yuck, that puts a damper on things. This all happening quite quickly–the bulk of the film consists of the family questioning whether or not their plight has been sent as a trial from God or as a curse from Satan and their growing suspicion that someone in their party has been in communication with the devil himself. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of these silly feel-good plots.
I think a lot of the time when something bad happens to someone we know, there’s an instinct to simply wish they would get over it so you could resume your relationship with them as if nothing had happened. This is one of the key elements that drives The Witch. A large deal of the horror arises from the behavior of the family members. You catch a glimpse just briefly of how they act in normal society, and when they are isolated and thrown into extreme situations you’re forced to watch as they lose their minds and their trust in each other, pushing the dialogue scenes into awkward and upsetting territory, making the audience wish things could go back to normal. The family holds their own separate thoughts on each other and their religion that stay buried under the surface, but once tragedy strikes these hidden emotions bubble up and cause serious conflict. The dialogue is frequently very uncomfortable, broaching emotional topics that most of us would rather not think about, and the audience is forced to watch as strong relationships between the characters bend and splinter, giving way to horrifying moments of insanity. Jump-Scare-City this is not. The only movie I’ve seen that handles horror in a similar way is the 1981 film Possession, which also happens to be the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.
Probably the biggest complaint that this movie will receive is that it is too slow. This is also, however, the beauty of it. One could argue that it’s really a movie about one man’s arrogance (William) in thinking that he can take on raising a family, living off nature, and leading a spiritual life all without the aid of a community. His downfall is a slow burn with many missed chances to turn back. It’s mostly viewed through the eyes of his eldest daughter, Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. She sees the cracks forming in the family relationships before anyone else and the audience feels her horror as she realizes there’s nothing she can do to stop it. It’s almost like a who-dun-it movie as the family searches to figure out why God would let them come upon such rough times, and attempt to identify the perpetrator of an unknown crime within their own ranks as the Devil pulls the strings. The result is a dark exploration of past sins as their present is pushed further and further into a surreal, spiritual nightmare.
This movie is far from traditionally enjoyable. This isn’t the kind of horror movies you go see with your friends and afterwards say something like, “yo remember that part where blah blah blah?!” and their like “Oh yeah that was crazy!” Instead, you’ll wander out of the theater and try to pretend like you never saw it before going your separate ways and crying yourself to sleep. As an experiment in horror, though, it’s a total success and offers up a kind of crazy that isn’t seen too often in cinema. All the performances are effectively whacked out and strangely dethatched, it’s constantly visually interesting, and the atmosphere goes from unnerving to PTSD worthy. You’ll be suspicious of everyone and everything within the first ten minutes. It takes a special film to show you a shot of a cute rabbit and make you wonder if it’s the devil-incarnate.
Written by David Goodliffe