"The Witch" (2016) Retrospect Review
I should probably start this review by saying that The Witch was my favorite movie of 2016. Not my favorite horror film of 2016, my overall favorite film for the entire year. And ironically enough, it's hard to write positive things about The Witch, because so much of its power is its slow burn nature, meaning that talking about the specific sequences that make The Witch so great would be robbing people of a great experience.
The setup is simple. A family of 1600s Puritans are exiled from their village. Not for a disbelief in God, but for the opposite. The patriarch of the family believes that their village is abandoning God's intents, so they're forced to leave and move to the edge of the woods and build a new home. And a witch comes to terrorize them.
I know I spent an intro paragraph talking about not giving up The Witch's secrets, which might lead someone to ask: Why would you just come out and say a witch terrorizes them? Surely they play with some notion of ambiguity!
The Witch does not do this. At all.
In less than ten minutes of the film starting, it establishes on horrifying terms that a witch is indeed present. How they establish that, I'll leave you to discover. But what The Witch does do is leave the family in the dark on their situation. In other words, we know that a witch lives in the woods, but they don't. They'll all learn the hard way that not only is there a witch, but that other dark forces have already begun to manifest in their home.
This the part where I'll mention that The Witch is absolutely a slow burn horror film. It takes its time but punches when necessary. If you're not a fan of the slow-burn pace, this movie will throw you off. If you're a fan of that though? The Witch is a gold mine of every aspect of filmmaking. The actors are incredible, embodying their paranoia perfectly. A few of the child actors in the film even manage to exceed their adult counterparts, but both age ranges of actors recite their dialogue in era appropriate dialect. The cinematography is gorgeous, making use of the kind of Earthy browns and greens that I'd expect from a Werner Herzog film (specifically the color palette of Herzog's Nosferatu remake). The music is exceedingly creepy and will instantly get under your skin.
However, what makes The Witch such a knockout is its simplicity. When I say that the plot is literally about a Puritan family dealing with a witch, that's pretty much all there is. There are subplots, but they're all connected to the decisions that each family member makes. The director, Robert Eggers, originally worked in Production Design, and his eye for detail elevates The Witch into the creepiest damn procedural plot ever. The destination of this story almost seems inevitable once you're far enough into the film, but getting there isn't made any easier by some truly disturbing moments.
The Witch is basically a thought experiment as a film, the experiment being "What would happen if a Puritan family encountered a witch described by 1600s New England folklore?". This might be the only real issue the movie has for me. There's no denying that it's weird to see such a historically accurate period piece make villains of witches when you consider the Salem Witch Trials and various historical inquisitions against Pagan cultures.
But I can't help but admire how The Witch renders its Puritanical vision of witchcraft to its fullest absurdity and almost seems to underscore another point entirely: Which is that if the Puritan beliefs of witches were true, then the Puritans would have been wiped out completely. that the forces of darkness that they imagined were out there would have never allowed them to exist and would consume everything around it.
As far as small scale, slow burn horror goes, it doesn't get much better than this. The only two recent horror films I'd rank as higher than The Witch would probably be The Babadook and Get Out (and don't worry, those will both get reviewed eventually). I should say that this kind of slow creepy horror is one of my favorite genres on Earth, so when I saw this in February of last year, it was always going to be one of my top films of the year. To sum it up best, I'll use a quote from my best friend who saw it with me:
"That movie was just... Evil."
And it sure is.
Oh! And all hail Black Philip.