As someone with a deep attachment to the horror genre I consistently find myself thrilled or disappointed by it – there’s rarely a middle ground for me. Being a purist, that limits my options even more. I have no patience for schlock horror, and over reliance on gore is a real turn off for me too, mostly because it eschews the need for strong writing. I don’t shy away from sub genres, though. It’s just that the piece itself needs to contain strong characters and a sense of internal logic – once those two boxes are ticked, I’m largely good.
I’ve reviewed some decent horror movies recently, but probably haven’t enjoyed many of them as much as I enjoyed The Witch, written and directed by Robert Eggers. As far as sub genres go, I’d put this one firmly in “Satanic Horror”, but it’s far superior than other entries, which are mostly of the “demonic possession” variety, and in many ways it feels like the kind of movie that used to be made in the 70s by Hammer and Amicus.
For a first time writer/director, the depressingly young Eggers makes a solid debut here with a movie that oozes with atmosphere and a creeping intensity of dread, and proves himself a capable actor’s director too, allowing the two veteran actors of the piece (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickey) to do good work, and coaxing terrific work from the children, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson. Scrimshaw provides perhaps the finest-acted scene of the movie, a small, uninterrupted speech that comes immediately before one of the movie’s many tragic moments, and the twins, played by Grainger and Dawson are two of the weirdest kids I’ve seen in any movie – together, they are instrumental to the eeriness inherent throughout. As Thomasin, Taylor-Joy is good, but for me overshadowed by the rest of the cast.
It’s clear from early on that the supernatural aspect of the movie isn’t vague or ambiguous, as this movie could so easily have just been about the religious ignorance of 17th century New World settlers, but Eggers masterfully presents an honest portrayal of the family, whose prideful male head accepts exile into the unexplored wilderness of New England rather than settle enmities with their congregation. Once the action moves to this setting, the sense of foreboding increases in a series of scenes that culminate in a terrible tragedy (the first actual appearance of the titular witch), and the beginning of the family’s inevitable ruin.
“inevitable ruin” is a key component of my purist stand on horror movies. I feel that a horror movie cannot be fully complete with a happy ending, or even any hint of salvation. For me, the protagonist must be on a one-way trip to ultimate doom. That doom needn’t be a physical death, but it must show that journey can only have one ending. In The Witch, the family’s shared doom makes them a group-protagonist, but the actual ending of the movie where the sole survivor’s fate is revealed, is also a kind of doom for that character, a change of state to one that we’ve already seen in a pivotal, wrenching moment early in act 2, involves a loss of humanity.
That Eggers’s intent is to make an actual horror movie is commendable, and the movie is made with a real economy of time and plot that doesn’t feel forced by budget. I liked almost every part of this movie. The acting is tremendous, the story is involving, the plight of the characters and their ultimate fates in this lonely, isolated place is affecting. It’s all so good, that the one part of it that disappointed me comes at such a pivotal reveal that it really disappointed me. It’s only a couple of seconds long, and it probably doesn’t bother too many viewers, but I spent some time resenting the choice Eggers made. Having said that, it isn’t too much longer after that scene that the ending coda of the movie hits, and what an ending it is. It’s expected and yet executed in such an unexpectedly glorious manner that it almost utterly erased my dislike for that prior scene.
I learned recently that Eggers is moving on to remaking the 1922 classic Nosferatu. Given the undeniable talent possessed by this guy, I’m extremely happy to hear this, as both the original and Werner Herzog’s terrific 1979 remake are two of my favourite movies. I hope, for the sake of horror, he stays within the genre for a few more entries after that.
© Andrew Hope, 2016