Of all the genres of movies there are, I feel like horror is the one that’s my biggest blindspot. My folks weren’t big into the genre, I never had friends who were into horror, and my wife is a huge wuss when it comes to horror, so we definitely never watch it. So I usually just glide right over horror movies. And perhaps it’s because of my lack of knowledge, but the whole genre usually feels a little cheap to me. At least by and large. There are of course exceptions, movies that I really love that are called horror movies, like the Shining, that actually have something deeper going on. By and large, horror movies seem cheap to me. Because most horror movies don’t seem to actually be trying to scare the viewer through tension, suspense, and artful craft, but cheap jump scares. It’s just playing peak-a-boo with the audience, and startling them, not scaring them. They still obviously make horror movies that are actually full of tension and craft, but I feel like they’re few and far between, and the vast majority is just scary dolls and ghosts jumping out of doors to startle viewers. So it’s always cause for celebration when we get a horror movie that tries to actually do more than yell “boo!” at the audience.
And for a while now I had been hearing about just such a movie. The Witch was a critical darling that seemed to be destroying at the various festivals it played at, and I saw article after article proclaiming it as the best horror movie in ages, and one of the scariest films ever made. Which is always a little worrisome, because man do movies like this have a high likelihood of ending up disappointing. Movies can get so over-hyped these days, especially ones that premiere at a festival almost a year before they come out to the general public. We get months of the lucky few who got to see it at the premier telling us that it’s awesome, and we should really get excited about it, which tends to build to an untenable degree by the time it actually comes out, and by then if the movie isn’t an absolute life-changing masterpiece, it feels like a dud. And I don’t really know why I’m rambling about this point, because while this movie wasn’t as mind-blowing and soul-destroyingly terrifying as I had heard, I still have a great time with the Witch, and found it far more interesting than most horror movies that come out.
The plot is very simple, and revolves around a family living an American colony in the 17th century, which itself seems like a nightmare. The father of the family, William, gets the family kicked out of the settlement for apparently being too religious for Pilgrims, and the family loads their life up onto a cart and heads out into the middle of nowhere to live their own weird, solitary lives. So they build a house next to some creepy woods, and begin their strange religious life. William and his wife Katherine have five children, the eldest daughter Thomasin, the son Caleb, the creepy twins Mercy and Jonas, and the baby Samuel, and the family are just doing their best to survive in this harsh and unfamiliar world. Unfortunately one day Thomasin is out near the woods playing with Samuel, but when she covers to eyes to play peak-a-boo she opens to find Samuel gone. The family is deeply disturbed by this, since they figured they were the only people around, but they just kind of accept it as wolves and move on. Although we cut away and find that there’s some creepy naked woman living out in the woods, who straight up murders the baby and uses a butter-churner to reduce the child to a paste to use in her spells. Yeesh.
And things don’t go well for the family after this. Katherine starts to go crazy and just prays and cries all the time, while Thomasin is struggling with the implication that it’s all her fault. Michael and Caleb are dealing with their failing crops and start heading into the creepy woods to try and hunt, while the twins just dance around and since songs about the black goat they own they call Black Philip. Which is a totally normal thing for creepy twins to do. And that night they kids overhear Katherine and William discuss the possibility of losing another mouth to feed by giving Thomasin to another family in the colony for her to learn wife duties. And the next morning her and Caleb wander out into the woods in hunt for food in the hopes that that will convince the family not to get rid of Thomasin. But things go wrong and Thomasin is bucked off the horse and knocked unconscious as the horse flees and Caleb becomes lost after something kills their dog. Thomasin finally wakes up later, and comes back to the family who are obviously freaked out, and we see that Caleb has made his way to witch’s hovel. She comes out, looking like a beautiful young woman, and grabs Caleb. The family begins treating like Thomasin like crap; acting like she was involved with the whole thing and it’s not helped when she goes out to deal with the sheep and finds Caleb naked and weak wandering around.
So the family is now in crisis mode as Caleb struggled to gain consciousness, and starts having weird seizures. The twins begin claiming that Thomasin is a witch and that she’s doing it all, while William keeps reassuring everyone that there’s nothing mystical going on. But then Caleb throws up a full apple before having more seizures and quoting Bible verses. Then he dies. William and Katherine freak out, and Thomasin claims that the twins are evil, since they hang out with Black Phillip, who is obviously the Devil, while the twins claim that Thomasin must be a witch. So William does the only logical thing and sticks all three kids in the barn and nails them inside so he can deal with them later. And that night while Katherine starts to have crazy visions and I guess sells her soul to the devil, the Witch bursts into the barn and I guess takes the twins away while leaving Thomasin behind. William wakes up the next morning, finds what happened at the barn and is killed by Black Phillip who gores him. Katherine then comes out, assuming Thomasin is behind everything, and the two end up fighting until Thomasin is able to kill her mother. She’s then left with nothing, her family dead and the farm destroyed, so she does the only thing that makes sense, and asks Philip to help. Which was a good call, since Black Phillip is actually the Devil, and lets Thomasin become a Witch in exchange for her soul.
So that’s the Witch, the purported savior of the horror genre. And it was pretty good. It didn’t blow me away like was implied, but it was a very interesting movie. Just like the Revenant it was filmed with natural light and really transported me to the horrible, bleak life that the early American settlers lived. Most of the dialogue was apparently taken directly from sources at the time who were talking about witches, or conversations people claimed to have with and about witches, which leant an air of authenticity to the movie that was very effecting. The acting was superb, even from the children, and really helped add to the suspense the movie was building. Yeah there were a couple jump-scares, because I feel like that’s pretty necessary in a horror movie, but I didn’t think it relied on them too much. Really the music and cinematography were the MVP’s of this movie, helping to create an extremely creepy vibe that permeates the entire movie, keeping you on edge the entire time. But honestly, my biggest problem with the movie, and the thing that kind of bugged me leaving the theater, is probably the weirdest complaint I could have. I’m kind of bummed there was a witch in this movie.
We only saw the witch a handful of times throughout the movie, and usually it was in cut-aways so the characters weren’t actually interacting with her. Yeah, they saw the witch in the barn, and Caleb saw her, but those could be explained away by having them just be the imaginations of scared children. But then the goat was the Devil, let Thomasin sell her soul and she went to the coven to dance around a fire and fly into the night. This was a bit of a letdown, because up until that ending I was kind of expecting the reveal that there actually wasn’t a witch and this movie was taking place in our reality. The movie did an amazing job of showing how these simple, overly-religious people could mistake simple coincidences as the workings of a witch. Caleb got lost and got sick, then started having seizures. Their crops were failing because they were in a new country and had no idea how to farm there. I guess the disappearance of the baby in the beginning is the hardest one to explain away, but it could have been wolves like William said. It would have made the Witch a very different movie, but it would have strengthened what I felt was the biggest theme of the movie.
When I watched the Revenant I came away with the opinion that living in frontier times would have been horrible. There’s absolutely no way that I could have survived in any other time period than the one I’m living in. And while the Revenant got me to think about actual survival in the woods, there was something that was on the tip of my tongue the whole time that I was trying to think about, and I think this movie did a much better job getting there. And that’s the fear of the unknown. There was this existential dread that I was beginning to feel in Revenant when you saw the people wandering in these vastly empty woods with the knowledge that there was no one else out there to help them. But this movie took that aesthetic and ran with it. Yeah, there were the colonists from the beginning a day’s journey from their little house, but for the most part you could tell that this family was on its own. They had no one to help them but themselves, and when something unexplainable starts to happen, they turn on each other. Things that didn’t make sense started to happen, and because they had no knowledge of what it could actually be, they jump to witches. There’s an anxiety-triggering level of uncertainty to this movie that really freaked me out, and became my favorite part of the movie. We fear what we don’t know, and in the 17th Century we sure didn’t know much. They filled their heads with religion in the hopes that that would explain things, and all that did was cause them to turn against each other in fear of devils and witches, which was why it was a bit of shame that it actually was devils and witches. To me the movie would have been even scarier and impactful if there was no explanation, if their crops were just failing and their son had died from an ailment. Throughout history humans have explained away various medical, psychological, and even meteorological events as the work of devils and witches, when in reality there were more explainable things happening. We fill in things we don’t understand with magic, even though magic doesn’t really exist. Actually having a witch show up felt like a cop-out, when a more realistic move would have been even more terrifying, because the same thing could actually happen to you in real life. Witches aren’t real, human evil in the face of the unknown is, which is far more terrifying to me.
The Witch was written and directed by Robert Eggers and distributed by A24 Films, 2015.