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Sunday
Feb212016

Review: Creepy Puritans and "The Witch"

Though we'd already seen The Witch at festivals I sent a friend to see it this weekend, a non-horror guy, to see if he'd like it. Meet Eric Blume. - Editor

The Witch debuted last January at Sundance and finally got a wide release via A24 this weekend.  It’s borderline shocking that this movie is being treated like a Hollywood horror movie, because it feels more like a foreign film, with the same essential disdain of fanatical religiosity that’s usually reserved for something like Cristian Mingiu’s great 2012 film Beyond the Hills.  And in tone, it’s thoroughly austere:  we’re thrown into the 17th century setting with as much reverence and severity as we are into the 19th century world of The Revenant. I read somewhere that the latter was tough to shoot… The Witch must have been so, too, with everyone making a lot less money to be miserable.

The plot centers around a Puritan family who is banished from their community and forced to move to an area bordered by an ominous-looking forest.  In the movie’s first ten minutes, the family newborn is snatched up by something living in that forest, and the family unravels from there.  It’s a contained universe from which Eggers gets maximum tension, putting a slow squeeze on you from the start and never quite letting go.  

The film plays beautifully off of how incredibly creepy the Puritans were.  But Eggers doesn’t stop there and also harnesses what's creepy about the woods (specifically, their insulation); farm animals (their seeming placidity); and twins (everything).  He even conjures memories of how creepy Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is.  The Puritanism is the front-and-center text, but the puritan (small p) is the subtext, and Eggers puts the characters’ guilt, shame, confusion, and marriage to sin into a continuous wash cycle.  The family dynamics feel true and perverse, and the performances he captures from all six actors are whoppers.  Lead Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the oldest daughter, has the baby/sinner face of a young Michelle Williams and carries the movie with complete authority.

Visually, the movie looks as one might expect, with the drained-color palette that’s popular in non-Puritan horror movies.  But early in the picture, Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke use streaks of daylight on the actors that due the period costumes occasionally recalls a Vermeer painting, without being self-conscious about it.  The filmmaking team seems to have made The Witch with their hearts in their throat, and their full-throttle approach gives the movie a genuine force.  It’s not a major picture, but the debut of perhaps a major talent.  Eggers comes at the film not just to scare you, but to make you feel dread in the best sense.  The culmination at the end, while true to its horror roots, has a release with a surprisingly exultant comic edge to it.  Eggers has a nice sick streak.

Did you see The Witch this weekend? Sound off in the comments. (Previous posts on The Witch)

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Reader Comments (16)

Really liked it ....

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Good review, but it irritates me of how everytime a great horror movie arrives, critics try to tie it with another genre. It must be the fifth review I read that says this is a arthouse, or foreign movie, like a horror movie could be that good.

NOOO! Its a great horror movie. Get over it!

Also, silence of the lambs, seven. All horros movies. All great ones.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPotter

"baby/sinner face of a young Michelle Williams" is my new favorite description of anyone.

February 21, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think they preface that this feels arthouse/foreign film to temper people's expectations of something like Saw or Hocus Pocus with blood. I mean, the movie is a slow build

BUT HOLY SHIT WHAT A MOVIE

So genuinely terrifying and SPOILER to show the witch in the beginning was a stroke of genius because it keeps the dread going for the whole picture. Also the ending is pure perfection

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRahul

I don't have words to describe my reaction to this picture. Watching it l was certain this is people must have felt when they saw The Exorcist. I was nearly in tears I was so disturbed by it all. I still haven't fully been able to wrap my head around why I had the reaction I did but it definitely left me wanting more from this director and the actors.

Side note: to prove how legitately disturbed I was by it all I accidentally left all my stuff in the theater and had to sneak back in later when I realized I left my coat.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTyson

I was absolutely bowled over by this, and haven't stopped thinking about it. I think it is a major film, with original ideas about religion and feminism, and I cannot wait to see what Eggers does next.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Absolutely loved this film. I can't wait to see it again.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

I liked it but didn't love it. At some points it was more interesting in theory than in practice to me. Not to harp on child actors, but the eldest son had a lot of heavy lifting to do, which seemed like it was beyond him. For me, it made one key scene feel more comedic than horrific.

Otherwise, the acting was very strong, the ominous tone was well-established, it was beautifully filmed, and the director is definitely a talent to watch. There was one image in particular that was so creepy and brilliant, but I don't want to give it away for those who have not seen the film (I'm not sure how we handle spoilers on this site?). Bottom line, though, is that I wasn't as terrified or gripped by it as others seemed to have been.

I'm beginning to think that I might not be the BEST audience for this kind of film. The more mainstream, torture-porn horror movies are definitely not my thing. But I've been lukewarm on a lot of beloved recent horror films: The Babadook and It Follows also fell into the "liked, not loved" camp for me, and neither film stayed with me. There were moments where I found those films kind of -- silly. I don't mean that in a condescending way. I just experienced them as being kind of funny at moments that were supposed to be scary. So maybe something is wrong with me. lol.

There are some horror films I LOVE--Silence, Se7en, Alien/s, The Descent--but they are few and far between. I'm a fan of films that effectively establish tension and sense of dread and commit to it (Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of my favorite films of the decade), but I felt that I came out of The Witch feeling like I missed something that everyone else seemed to get.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I thought of the original reception of "The Exorcist" too! No way will this be as big a hit, but there's just a sense of blasphemy about the whole thing. So strange for a wide release film, legitimately upsetting and challenging, and of course - impeccably made.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I thought they made a big mistake revealing the witch so early. If the infant's disappearance remained a mystery it would have been severely disorienting. Instead, it robbed the film of any suspense. It became a matter of waiting for the shit to hit the fan, and the hour or so it took for that to happen did not work for me at all. Puritanical hysteria is ripe subject matter but it has also been done to death. The Witch begins and ends well but i'm a bit surprised that people are flipping for it as much as they are. It's a halfway decent movie with good production values and a cool goat. Hardly The Shining for the new millenium.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Roark:

"I don't want to come right out & say you're a stupid person if you don't like The Witch, but you're certainly indisputably incorrect, is all". Jason Adams

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPotter

Potter - wow, that's a really persuasive argument!

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Very good movie, put me in mind of the stories of Ambrose Bierce. The acting was fantastic and the atmosphere was drenched in elemental fear. I too questioned the early reveal of the supernatural, but thinking it over later I'm glad they just went for it, no fussing about or playing coy. We need more original, visionary horror films like this; the theater where I saw it played 4-5 horror film previews beforehand, each one more tired & cliched than the last–the audience was outright laughing at them in derision. But there was a spellbound silence throughout The Witch.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Roark - I think your point about puritan paranoia being overdone is precisely why they HAD to reveal the witch so early. We all know "The Crucible", so this film had to give us more than that - and did. The film denies us the modern reassurance that this is all just superstition, then lets us see the interpersonal dynamics play out without certainty of anyone's innocence.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Hmmm... I found this to be... fine. Eggers is certainly a director to watch out for (as is Anya Taylor-Joy as an acting talent). However, while the film has great atmosphere and strong visuals, I can't say I wasn't bored by it at times (I dosed off, to be honest). Also, once the film was done, neither the story nor characters left much of an impact on me. In saying all of that, I found this to be 20x more engaging than It Follows, which I actually ended up hating.

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Dave S - I can certainly appreciate that being Eggers' intention, but I thought the nature of the infant's sudden disappearance made clear that it was not mere superstition at play. It seems to have worked just fine for most people, but not for me. Oh well!

February 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

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