Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: The Witch

Image courtesy of A24.
I'll give director Robert Eggers credit: his debut, "The Witch," is among the more artfully rendered horror films of recent years and it bears more in common with the work of Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer, both of whom Eggers has cited in terms of influence, than your typical example of the genre. The film looks great and is often creepy, but it's the type of picture I admire a little more than love.

Set in the 1630s, the film follows the travails of a New England family who has been cast out of their community, either for reasons unknown or simply reasons unknown to me due to the near whispered dialogue throughout the film and, unfortunately, the loud cinema screening next door to this one that nearly drowned out the sound.

The family relocates at the edge of a dark wooded area that Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the clan's oldest child, eyes with suspicion. Not too long after their arrival, the family's newborn disappears and, we learn, is sacrificed by a witch living in the woods. The death of the child appears to make the haggard old woman appear young once more.

Things continue to take a downward turn for the family. William (Ralph Ineson), the father, is unable to successfully grow crops and his hunting skills leave much to be desired. The mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), begins to lose her grip on reality after the death of the newborn and two of Thomasin's younger siblings believe that their older sister is a witch after she jokingly proclaims to be one.

Soon, tragedy strikes again. Thomasin's slightly younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), gets lost in the woods, discovered by the witch and then takes ill. Thomasin's family increasingly begins to blame her for the woes they are suffering and horrific ordeals continue to plague the family.

This is a very subtly made horror film. There are very few of the traditional types of sequences you'd find in a typical example of the genre. In other words, nothing jumps out and there aren't any scenes of disturbing images peeking out of the dark.

And yet, there's a sense of dread throughout the proceedings. Commonplace things - such as trees, rabbits and a goat - are well utilized to send chills up the spine. There's a sense of evil that permeates the story and the film's depiction of the era - from the dialogue to the religious beliefs practiced by its characters - struck me as authentic. The film's final scenes are particularly unsettling, although the finale involves what appears to be a moment of joy, which, in some ways, makes everything that has come before it even more horrifying.

Eggers' film has been listed alongside a handful of recent horror movies that have been singled out as potential examples of a new wave in the genre. For my money, "It Follows" is the high watermark among them, while "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is also high on the list. I'd rank "The Witch" alongside the acclaimed "The Babadook" as both pictures were movies that I liked, although my admiration often outweighed my overall enthusiasm.

"The Witch" is a well-made period horror drama that features some solid performances, eerie use of locale and sumptuous cinematography. I can appreciate the amount of work that went into it, especially in attempting to accurately capture the feel of 1630s New England. It's not one of my favorites among recent horror movies, but it's worth seeing, especially if you are a devotee of the genre.

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