Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Witch


Saying "I wish all horror films were as good as The Witch" is like saying "I wish all Sci-Fi films were as good as Star Wars", or "I wish all action films were as good as Mad Max: Fury Road". No matter how hard we want it to happen, it just won't. The horror genre is, though, in something of a resurgence lately. 2013's Oculus took a trademark haunted house story and turned the tables on it, giving us two adjacent stories taking place in the same space but a whole generation apart. The Babadook continued the uptick in 2014, with a psychologically scarring story of a grief stricken mother and her mentally unstable child being plagued by a spirit that we can't ever be sure whether or not is real. Then came It Follows in 2015, one of my favourite horror films since the genre began. It had clearly defined characters, a completely original premise, innovative cinematography and it didn't rely on loud noises to make a lasting impression. It was like horror was on the verge of breaking into arthouse cinema. Of course, we still suffer the weaker genre entries, such as the mostly dreadful Poltergeist remake or the painfully average Annabelle, but The Witch has come right out to make a bold statement: It is the OculusBabadook, and It Follows of 2016.

Some time in the 17th Century, a family - led by father William (Ralph Ineson) and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) - are excommunicated from a Christian plantation in New England, and soon take up shelter in a farm on the edge of a forest. After their unbaptized baby mysteriously vanishes in the blink of an eye while under the watch of oldest sibling Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family is plagued with strange occurrences and the aftermath of their disconnection from religion, and soon the family start to feel as if this is all caused by the same thing: witchcraft. The Witch makes an interesting narrative move very early on in the film. Whilst Thomasin is playing with her baby brother, he disappears. The family go looking for him, but to no luck. So far, straight forward. But then debut director-writer Robert Eggers makes an interesting choice: he shows us that the family is under attack from a witch. There's no doubt in our minds that this is what's happening as we watch the witch's cold, scrawny, twig-like hand caress the naked body of the abducted baby in one of the film's most horrifying images (less than ten minutes into the film, by the way). We watch the characters come to this realisation, and we are then forced to see everything come crashing down.

This only works as well as it does due to Eggers' terrific script, most of which was adapted from legitimate diaries and journals from that era. The dialogue is occasionally tough to follow, it's all spoken in the dialect of the time, but this is just one of many reasons why The Witch is such a sensational horror film. It is challenging. This will not please the same audiences who raved about the likes of Annabelle or Sinister 2. This is a challenging horror film, with thought provoking themes at its core. The Witch talks predominantly about religion, and how much of an impact it can have on the life of an overtly religious family who are simply terrified of what will happen if they don't do as God pleases. The film is packed with thematic content - as well as as religion, it also touches on what family means to each of these people and addresses topics such as puberty and man's connection to nature - and it's utterly loaded with religious and satanic symbolism: the family pray before every meal, and the young twins claim their goat (named Black Phillip) speaks to them satanically. Eggers' script is seamless in its balancing of these themes and ideas, and it all comes together exceptionally in the film's utterly bonkers but totally brilliant final act.

What also sets The Witch apart from mainstream horror, though, is its scare tactics. The Witch doesn't offer the jump scares you get in every scene of the more recent Paranormal Activity offerings, or the blood-soaked gore of the Evil Dead franchise. Instead, The Witch relies on atmosphere alone for it's first hour. Using unsettling cinematography and flickering, candle-infused lighting, The Witch gets under your skin from the offset and is perfectly content with this until it's final act, when - if you'll pardon the expression - shit really hits the fan. There are ravenous crows, murders, betrayals, animal attacks and one of the most bizarre sequences I have ever seen in a horror film. But it all works. Every frame fits the film's atmosphere seamlessly, every movement creates a whole new possibility of horror thanks to the film's exceptional cinematography. The whole thing, but especially the final act, is so well crafted in every single respect that it feels less like watching a film and more like experiencing an onslaught. It is superb in terms of lighting, framing, performance, scripting, direction, music, editing and atmosphere. By the end of the film my hands were so stricken with sweat that I slipped when standing up out of my seat. No film has ever put me through an ordeal as tough as the final act of The Witch.

And this is why I'm so glad that Eggers takes the time to invest us into the characters and the story. The Witch may be light on narrative, but it is impressively heavy with character development and thematic ideas, and this makes for a better film. Thomasin is a genuinely likable protagonist and someone we grow to care about deeply, so when everything escalates in the film's climax it's unbearable to watch. Taylor-Joy's performance is simply remarkable. Her younger brother Caleb is also an endearing figure in the film (and boasts a surprisingly excellent child performance from Harvey Scrimshaw), while the parents interact with both each other and the children in compelling and rewarding ways. Eggers takes his time with The Witch. He consistently builds the atmosphere while simultaneously investing his audience into the characters, before quite literally taking everything to hell and back come the finale. When we care about characters in a horror film, watching their lives being destroyed is where the true horror lies. Fear doesn't exist in a slammed door or a fake-out jump scare. Fear exists in the small moments in which we don't realise how invested we are in a character or in a story until it's too late. The Witch is certainly not for everyone, but if you are growing tired of all the cheap throwaway horror films that cinema is plagued with and want something narratively challenging as well as coma-inducingly terrifying, it's the film for you. What an experience.

To Summarise: Thematically challenging, superbly performed, exquisitely directed and packed with enough terror and dread to last a lifetime, The Witch not only continues horror's new found development into arthouse cinema, it completes it.


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