Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content and Graphic Nudity
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson
THE WITCH is one of the most unusual films that I’ve seen premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in my years of attendance. It’s not every day that you get to see a combination of dark folklore, a period piece and an ode to 70’s Satanic Panic all poured into one devilish concoction. THE WITCH may have a few problems as a whole, but is a spooky good time for those wanting a highly atmospheric exercise in horror. Robert Eggers displays a nice grasp of setting and characters for his feature debut, but doesn’t completely stick the landing.
The time is 1630 and the place is New England. William is a devout Christian disillusioned with hypocrisy in those around him. William’s prideful nature gets him banished from his small town and uproots his family (wife, two daughters, two sons and a baby boy) to a patch in the wilderness. Their newfound home borders next to a foreboding forest that may be hiding something sinister. When the infant vanishes without a trace, young daughter Thomasin is blamed for the disappearance. This is merely the first in a string of unfortunate incidents that suggest this Puritan family’s luck in the wilderness may be running on fumes. Evil is lurking in the neighboring woods, but it’s also lurking in the hearts of the paranoid family.
THE WITCH is pretty much THE CRUCIBLE with actual witchcraft and insane Ken Russell imagery thrown in for good measure. The plot is familiar in the sense that you’ve probably heard fairy tales or folklore resembling this story before, especially given the end title card that states these are exactly where Robert Eggers received his influences from. Though there’s no question of a real witch lurking in the woods (this detail is handed to the viewer in the opening 10 minutes), the real question becomes if the witch will tear this family apart or if their suspicion of each other will do that for her. However, the familiarity of the tale presents one of the issues that some may have with THE WITCH. It’s fairly predictable in you can easily guess the general outline of the film. There are only so many ways that this story could have ended and the climax is a bit underwhelming.
The other problem that becomes apparent is that some of the acting borders on becoming dangerously over-the-top. Anya Taylor-Joy demonstrates a remarkable amount of talent as Thomasin, the protagonist with far too much stress placed upon her head, and Harvey Scrimshaw is just as impressive as her brother. Kate Dickie is believable as a woman lost within her own grief and teetering on the edge of madness. However, the other child actors are a bit annoying and this could be attributed to the nature of their characters. As William, Ralph Ineson is fairly good but can be hard to fully comprehend. He’s easy to understand when he’s given small sentences or speaks slowly. It’s another story entirely when his character delivers lengthy speeches or rapidly yells at his family. There were definite lines of dialogue that I missed simply because I was struggling to fully make out what Ineson was saying.
THE WITCH makes up for most of its faults in being downright spooky throughout and nightmarish in places. There’s a thick fog-laden atmosphere covering every scene in this film. I don’t recall a single frame where the sun was actually shining. The attention to detail is exquisite. WITCH feels like a legitimate big budget (far more than the actual budget) attempt to present a window into the past, even if the film delves into the supernatural throughout. There are disturbing images that you’re not likely to forget, a handful of which got great reactions from the crowd. I’m still trying to get one haunting shot out of my mind. It lasted less than 30 seconds, but I can’t unsee it.
There are positives and negatives to be said about THE WITCH, but the good outweighs the bad. There’s no denying that Eggers succeeds in making the viewer feel uneasy through this entire creepy affair. The acting can get a little silly and the climax underwhelmed, but the atmosphere is thick with omnipresent dread and there is much eeriness to be had. Overall, THE WITCH should please horror fans looking for effective old-school scares.