This is going to be a tough one. Not because the movie is bad (in fact, this movie is fucking great), but because of how strange, intelligent and subtle this movie is for a mainstream horror release. The moviemakers have serious guts marketing this to the same crowd that usually flocks to the likes of Derivative “Found Footage” Horror Movie #452 , and from a marketing standpoint, people who like those movies will have little patience for a movie so character-driven and so atmospheric. Well, fuck that shit. “The Witch” is the first genuine great mainstream movie of 2016, plucked from the efforts of other hopeful moviemakers who were picked for the Sundance Film Festival last year, and one of the few that is getting the mainstream release many independent moviemakers dream of before being relegated to, “Direct-to-Video” status (read the book, “Rebel Without A Deal” for an honest look at what independent moviemakers REALLY go through). Well, if this movie is any indication, the Sundance Film Festival set may have finally grown up, going from curating the usual navel-gazing fare that is praised for being, “realistic” to stuff that one probably would’ve seen distributed by Janus Films back in the day. Yes, “The Witch” is that great.
But like I said, one has to have patience for it, and also pay close attention. Like last year’s, “Crimson Peak” (one of my favorite movies of 2015, by the way), here the horror and violence are driven not for their own sake but by characters, characters that reveal the emotional peril that greeted Purtian culture in the 1600s. Stripping away the romance of the period to the point where even the colors are muted, “The Witch” approaches at times to being a cold, observant documentary on Purtian life on the outskirts, as a family lead by a zealous, ultra-religious father (played by Ralph Ineson) tries to make life outside of their former plantation. One thing to note is that while other horror films try to make a morality tale out of characters moving away from normal, “moral” ways of life, “The Witch” has horror that is rooted in characters trying and failing to reach such an ideal. This leads to a breakdown in the family unit and to their way of life as events happen to them that are beyond their comprehension, but are rooted in things they yearn and fear for. And the movie does this in ways that are skin-curdling, shocking, and even quietly critical of said virtues in ways that I don’t want to spoil.
In fact, the movie is so unusual for a mainstream release that I have to go outside of the movie medium for a moment to compare it to a video game series. Yep, I’m talking about, “Silent Hill”. What makes some of the earlier games such beloved classics is how their scares are rooted not in surprise but rather in human fears and desires. In those video games, while one does fight monsters and solve obtuse puzzles, the true enemy of those games is oneself (am playing through, “Silent Hill 3” as of this writing). “The Witch” has roots in that kind of psychological framework, more or less, even if its set in a time where Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung weren’t even thoughts in their respective parent’s minds. So while the movie is old fashioned in tone and approach (the actors speak like how Writer/Director Robert Eggers surmised based on research on the time period this movie is set in, so expect plenty of, “thou”), it’s scares are uncomfortably intimate. Quite a hat trick, movie: making a time long past relatable by simply peeling back an era of colonialism and disastrous moral codes to reveal a sickness that probably didn’t even need the titular menace to reveal.
The acting is superb. Ralph Ineson plays the father figure in ways that make him not a hero or a villian, just an ordinary person trying to hold on their faith to the point where they shun even the very plantation that has a similar faith…and then they fail. Kate Dickie plays the mother who is slowly consumed by grief and terror as time goes along, to the point where they distrust their family and even their own ability to love. Harvey Scrimshaw plays a boy in the throes of an awakening of sorts as they go through puberty, leading to an interesting subplot involving sexual desire, one’s agency in regards to such desire, their sister’s sexual development, and a bunch of other stuff that Germaine Greer probably shouldn’t be writing essays about. And to accompany them, there are twin children played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, respectively, being playful in ways that get them into trouble, and yet not because of them being inherently bad. Like I said, they get the same raw deal everyone else does in this movie, no matter how pure they try to be. But it’s Anya Taylor-Joy who is the true winner, and the main focus, playing a young woman caught in forces beyond their control, set up by both their paternal figures and the horrors that endanger them from the woods. They are the movie’s way of critiquing their period and the codes said period had in colonized North America, ending with a coda that may or may not leave them in a better position.
So, yes, this movie is fucking great. This is a movie meant to be seen in a theater, or at least on a big screen. As a moviebuff and a moviemaker, this movie is both refreshing and inspiring (in a sense). But as a developing horror buff who started very young with family viewings of, “Scream”, “The Exorcist” and “Hollow Man” (don’t ask), this is probably one of the more disturbing works that will probably stick in my head until the day I die. What a creepy, magnificent achievement. Now, lets do something about those damn, “found footage” movies.
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