The 2010s have, on balance, been a rather frustrating decade for horror so far. 2009’s Paranormal Activity did a real number on mainstream horror and have ushered in a truly frustrating era where seemingly every horror flick has been about invisible ghosts banging doors and rattling chains for 90 minutes with maybe an exorcism or something at the end. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some fun to be had from such movies and that I don’t enjoy the best of them, but they seem particularly cheap and uninspired on balance. At least during the Saw/Hostel era of hyper-violent “torture porn” you could at least have fun pretending that the movies were allegories for Abu Ghraib or something, but this new crop is pretty much just an exercise in how it’s kind of fun to have things jump out at you sand say “boo!” In the last two years we were given two movies that rose above the fray and seemed like they were finally signs of change: The Babadook and It Follows. I liked both of those movies a lot, but I also thought both of them were a little less revolutionary than they seemed. The Babadook in particular was actually a lot closer to the “people haunted by spectral being that shows up and goes boo” formula that I’d long gotten sick of. It was really well made and cleverly used psychology rather than religion as the basis of its creepiness. It Follows, was slightly more original in so much as the ghost behaved differently from usual but it had its own baggage, namely that it’s style aped a little too much from John Carpenter. It’s a new year now and with it comes the new “next great hope” for the horror genre and one of the most promising yet in the new film The Witch.
The film is set in late 17th Century New England, and focuses on a family of puritans who have been banished from the main puritan city for having unspecified theological differences with the village orthodoxy and have ventured out to start their own farm away from civilization. The movie picks up a year or so later when this farm has been established but is not exactly prospering. The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), is not a particularly good farmer or hunter and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) has increasingly come to suspect that providence does not look kindly on their endeavors. Things really start to go awry when their infant child seemingly vanishes into thin air while their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching him, leading to grave suspicion that something is amiss either in the woods or in the house.
Obviously the first thing that jumps out to the viewer about The Witch is its unique setting. There have not been many movies about the puritans outside of a few adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and it’s readily apparent that writer/director Robert Eggers has done his research. The film uses what sounds like period accurate dialogue that gives the film a needed verisimilitude and also makes the film distinctive from other horror movies. There’s kind of a widespread problem in cinema, and especially in genre cinema, where filmmakers are so obsessed with film that they end up drawing all their inspiration from other movies rather than the wider culture. There’s certainly a place for that (e.g. Tarantino), there’s really something refreshing about seeing a filmmaker come around who seems like he’s read a lot of books and has a wider base of knowledge to draw from.
To some extent this is still a haunting film of sorts but the feel is so radically different from the Insidiouses, Sinisters, and Conjurings out there that it’s barely noticeable. For one thing, the movie is largely devoid of “jump scares” and instead uses creepy images and ideas to fuel its thrills. I’m not going to say that this is the scariest movie one is likely to see and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone as such, but it taps into the roots of the genre and uses interesting imagery and ideas to create unease in his audience but he also taps into some very human psychology to examine the paranoia of the situation. The film never plays coy about the fact that there is real and literal witchcraft plaguing this family, but it’s never clear to the family what’s plaguing them and they quickly begin to turn on each other in much the way things played out in Salem during the witch trials. This works in part because the film has done its work to build and develop the four main family members in the film and give each of them a fully fleshed out set of motives and conflicts.
The Witch is the first film from its director and its one hell of a debut at that. There’s a wonderful maturity to the film and a great uncompromising spirit to it. It doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down for a mainstream audience and doesn’t pander to the whims of the hardcore horror audience. I began this review by pondering if The Witch would be the movie that would finally knock us out of this rut we’re in where every horror movie feels like a variation on Paranormal Activity. In the short term the answer is probably “no.” I don’t think this movie is going to be a box office smash and I don’t think studios are going to be rushing out to make clones of this. However, I do think that this movie is going to make a lot of noise in the greater film world and I do think it will have influence down the line. At the very least I’m hoping it will influence a few other directors working in the genre space to aim a little higher and give them the courage to aim a little higher and compromise a little less.