Asks the father of five in the opening shot of The Witch – A New England Folktale. Little does he know that he would find the answer sooner than expected. I am not saying it is a good thing.
Writer-Director Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch redefines horror filmmaking. It is not that scary and there is no gore but the atmosphere he creates for the film is so tense that you keep thinking something macabre is going to happen. That, in my opinion, is an achievement. The meaning of Horror has changed over time. Earlier, we had films like Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria and The Shinning which relied heavily on the atmosphere, music, and story rather than monsters behind the closets. But nowadays, almost every single horror film relies on cheap tricks to scare the audience which may or may not be good depending on who you ask it to. These movies are so frantic and desperate to scare the audience that they don’t focus on the other elements of the film. Sometimes, it may be effective but most of the time, it isn’t. It has become old, cliched and predictable. The most important aspect of a film is storytelling, and if you fail at that, if you sacrifice that, then there’s no point in making a film. Fortunately, we have seen some brave attempts in the last few years from some passionate filmmakers. The Babadook, it Follows, and, The Cabin in the Woods were amazing films that were not completely hollow and bereft of emotions. The Witch is another such gem from A24.
The Witch: Plot
Based on the Salem Witch trials which took place in the early 17th century, The Witch tells the story of a Puritan family. They (Husband, Wife and Five Children including an infant) are banished from their village over some disagreement with the community. They decide to live at the edge of the Woods thinking of it as a gift from the God, only to find themselves the target of an unnerving terror that lays in the woods. Soon, their infant disappears and things take an ugly turn. Once is starts terrorizing them, they can’t make heads and tails of it. Weird things start happening in the midst of this paranoia, the family members turn on each other. Is it the work of a Witch? Are they being hunted by the Devil? Is the God punishing them?
The Witch: Review
Reviewing a film like this is very difficult. Most of the people won’t like it because it sells itself as horror and people are going to be disappointed as there isn’t much horror in the film, at least not in the way people expect. That is the reason it is rated 6.8 on IMDb whereas the RottenTomatoes ratings are at 91%. People don’t like slow movies (most of them). They expect something to happen every second so that they can keep devouring their popcorn. The Witch is completely opposite of that. It will be loved by those who see filmmaking as an expression of art and not just mere entertainment. The Witch excels at technical things and it gets most of the things right. The atmosphere in this film is creepy. I have never seen anything like that in any other horror film.
The cinematography is gorgeous. Every frame has been crafted with great precision to aid in building the atmosphere. Some shots are long and the camera keeps zooming in, which kind of makes you feel uncomfortable and uneasy. The camera does not make any sudden movements, it moves slowly, zooming in, zooming out, immersing you in this whole madness. The greyish color grading makes everything look lifeless and bleak, which adds to the horror element. The shots in the woods often include the actors at the bottom half so the trees look enormous, symbolizing how insignificant and helpless the family really is. The walks in the woods make up for some really tense moments.
In one of the early shots, the camera shows the family sitting on the ground and praying. They think their prayers have been answered and they have found a perfect place to settle down. Then the camera keeps zooming in towards the woods before fading into black, almost soaking you in this inevitable dread and hysteria that follows. It’s scenes like this that make The Witch an absolute joy to watch.
Some choices are very interesting and thoughtful. During one of the scenes, we see Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) and her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) sitting near a pond. This scene serves two purposes. It shows that there is a pond/creek nearby where they get their water from. It also tells you more about the story. I can’t spoil what happens during this scene but it is there for a reason. Also, look at the color grading and how grey things look.
The night scenes are filmed with the minimal use of artificial lights. Most of the time, candles are used and the scenes are dimly lit. You can’t help but think about something evil lurking in the dark. It is the fear of that unknown that scares you. It also results in some beautifully crafted shots such as the one attached below.
But that being said, the most frightening character in The Witch is the atmosphere. Especially, The woods which is the resting place for the witches and other devilish things. That is what makes it relentlessly terrifying. Just take a look at the below pic for example. Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) is stuck in the woods and it is starting to frighten her. The Cinematographer captures that feeling of dread by filming the huge trees in the background. He does not show the full view. Not knowing how high the trees go and how deep the woods are is what scares us. She looks helpless as everything seems much bigger than her.
This whole atmospheric treatment results in the feeling of paranoia, which will linger with you till the end. It also does not shy away from filming some vomit-inducing scenes like (SPOILER ALERT) – The Witch pulverizing an infant and applying the goo to her body.
The other important aspect of The Witch that helps build the atmosphere is the music. It perfectly complements the visuals and adds another layer of horror to it. We must thank Mark Korven for that. The music in the Witch is spooky and terrifying. I can’t find the perfect words to describe it but it scared me more than the visuals. The music during the climax scene is so intense that I do not think I have a heart strong enough to download that soundtrack. The best way to describe it would be – Think of all the sounds from your scariest nightmares and put them all together in a single clip. It is dissonant and pretty unique. It will not give you jumpscares but is unsettling, nonetheless. You will keep thinking about it long after you’ve seen the film, that is if you are into music and know what good music means. It captures the whole essence of the film.
Talking about acting, everyone is pretty solid but the child actors steal the show. They make the film what it is. half of the time I wanted to kick them because they irritated me beyond my tolerance limit and that is what the director was trying to do. Anya Taylor Joy is great as Thomasin. The father and mother are equally good. Harvey Scrimshaw has delivered a brilliant performance as Caleb, the son who is guilty of committing a sin. His acting in this film blows everything Adam Sandler has ever done, away. How could he be so good?
Eggers’ direction is solid throughout the film. His storytelling abilities are amazing. He calls The Witch, A New England Folktale and that is what he turned it into. The tension and atmosphere in this film are what I expect from a horror film. It maintains the same atmosphere throughout the film and never let’s go. It all builds up to an ending that hits you like a hammer to the face. I bet no one will be able to guess the ending. At first, I thought it was not that great. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.
The reason I hold The Witch in such a high regard is that after watching the film, I had a feeling that I had consumed something evil and it was disturbing my inner-peace. Despite sharing my thoughts about the film, I am still not sure why I liked it so much that it may be one of my favorite horror films of all time. I guess that’s what good movies do to you. You don’t know why you love them. One more thing that baffles me is how well researched the whole thing is. They even used the old English which is a bit difficult to grasp even with subtitles, especially for non-native speakers. But it results in a realistic film.
The Witch is a film made with passion, by a passionate filmmaker, for passionate Cinephiles who don’t mind an artistic horror film. It’s not easy to watch and most of the people won’t like it since they’ll be expecting jump scares but if pulverizing babies is your thing then, do give it a try because it is a masterpiece of Horror filmmaking. I didn’t like it as much in the first viewing but it kept making me think about it and now that I have seen it around 6 times, I can say that it is one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.I doubt anyone is going to make a horror film like that in the near future.
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