After deserting a 1630s New England plantation because they were way too into Christianity, Katherine (Kate Dickie, Game of Thrones)1 and William (Ralph Ineson, Game of Thrones)2 raise their family in a cottage alongside a gigantic, conspicuous forest. Naturally, the forest houses a monster that seems intent on causing the family harm – a witch of sorts.
For all that indie upstarts want to escape the thematic homogeny of iconic 80’s flicks like Elm St, Friday the 13th and Halloween, horror, if you could call this that, is a genre still very much embedded in the hamfisted pits and perils of pubescence. Films like It Follows, for all the (deserving) zeitgeist and game changing rhetoric, really aren’t all that different despite incarnating the monstrousness of teenage sex in particularly unique fashion. In that sense, in spite of its clearly distinct language, setting and ambition, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, through its hot takes on womanhood and religion, is sort of flogging a dead goat. That said, its ambition brings an effective setting and some iconic scenes, as Eggers builds a whole lot of tension and quite elatedly plays around with familiar horror tropes.
After their baby boy is kidnapped while in Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) care, the family begins to suspect that she was somehow involved. Though this opens easy thematic doors to the social outcasting plotline normally associated with witch hunting, by limiting the on-screen players to just the family, and by basically telling us early on that there is an actual witch out there, these themes are reimagined within a very self-contained domestic context. The Witch’s biggest success is how it plays with its environment – the tiny cottage juxtaposed against the giant, creepy forest is a fantastic image, and it underpins a lot of what works in the film. The weaker thematic undercurrent has to do with religious hypocrisy, which burdens us with countless monologues from our adult leads, varying in effect.
The witch in this horror story plays only a peripheral role, occasionally popping in to cause some trouble, but leaving the family to self-destruct on their own accord, by way of grief, hysteria and suspicion. In that sense, and given how early Eggers shows his hand, the structure of The Witch is actually quite interesting. While we know the villain’s identify, insofar as she isn’t ‘hidden among us’, Eggers wants us to be terrified of her pervasiveness. It’s an interesting move in that we’ve been made aware of the threat upfront, but it doesn’t stop the film from reveling in any even slightly startling moments, as the sound is pumped up loudly for arbitrary actions, and we’re made to shudder every time William chops wood.3
However, to the disappointment of horror puritans, any actual scares are left very much to the final few minutes. There are chunks of The Witch that are just completely laden in dialogue, which is all quite forcefully old-timey, making it feel like, for a while there, we’re watching a stage play. We’re oddly reminded towards the end that a lot of the dialogue is extracted from real documents from the 1600s, the point of which is seemingly to try and heighten realism, but it clashes quite significantly with what ends up being a supernatural (and tacky) final scene.
What it lacks in actual effect, at least for the first two-thirds, The Witch mostly makes up for in resonance. You will be thinking about it for some time, and that’s a credit to bold creative and structural decisions, as well as its incredibly muted aesthetic and creepy setting, both of which I could see becoming quite iconic. Where other Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival horror selections like The Invitation and We Are Still Here, and obviously blood-splatterers like Deathgasm, may have more immediate effect, The Witch isn’t looking to be pigeonholed in festival’s horror subcategory. It’s a very calculated film, building to a fairly dramatic crescendo, but its ideas aren’t quite as interesting or unique as Eggers thinks they are, and in the absence of very many scares, it’s unfortunately evident.
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