After its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Robert Eggers’ The Witch cultivated a buzz that heralded it as the next great horror masterpiece. Here, the reviews proclaimed, was one of those truly rare gems, a horror film that operated as something like art, both genuinely frightening and impeccably crafted. Hearing chatter like this is a surefire way to get horror fans salivating a puddle at their feet, given the steady diet of slop being a fan of the genre requires one to consume. After endless streams of lousy sequels and cookie-cutter Blumhouse offerings, the prospect of a horror film at a top-shelf level of quality will always be greeted like a frosty Gatorade in the sun-scorched dunes of the Sahara. But now a film like The Witch has to grapple with living up to such effusive, effervescent praise. Being better than Insidious VII is no longer good enough. It now has to be one for the books, something to stand comfortably alongside the classics or else be met with disappointment. It’s a no-win situation if there ever was one, and for all of its unassailable strengths, The Witch does not win it.
In 17th Century New England, a man named William (Ralph Ineson) is standing before a tribunal of town elders, pridefully engineering his own exile. The particulars of his insubordination left undefined, William’s obstinacy results in himself and his reluctant family taking off into the wilderness to carve out their own way of life, removed from civilization. The brood includes austere mother Katherine (Kim Dickie), blossoming eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), rambunctious young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and infant Samuel. The put-upon, unappreciated Thomasin is charged with caring for Samuel one afternoon, and during a peek-a-boo session, the child mysteriously vanishes. The family blames an errant wolf for the disappearance and the resulting grief sends the already deeply religious brood into an uneasy cycle of prayer and despair, attempting to understand why God would take their son while never daring to question His reasoning.
For a film that operates at an extremely slow burn for most of its run, The Witch wastes absolutely no time showing us Samuel’s grim fate, as he is immediately seen in the clutches of a hideous old crone in the woods, who brandishes a carving knife over him before we then see her ominously bathing herself in viscera. So while we in the audience are acutely aware of the sinister presence residing in those woods, the family itself remains ignorant, though hardly blissfully so. In addition to the grief over the loss of Samuel, William’s corn crops are faltering, and he finds himself in such dire straits that he is forced to trade Katherine’s prized silver cup to keep the family afloat, a theft that he’s willing to allow his angry wife to lay at the feet of Thomasin. That’s just another of many hardships Thomasin must bear. Lusted after by her younger brother, disrespected by the twins, treated like a servant by her parents and with the overheard threat looming over her head of being pawned off on another family to lighten the load, her life is an unceasing string of indignities. When she tries to exert fear as an implement to control her disobedient siblings and claims to be “the witch of the woods,” it seems like a canny move. But when Caleb goes missing and returns naked in the night in a state the family, aptly, attributes to witchcraft, Thomasin’s fib comes back to haunt her.
What’s interesting about The Witch is how, were one to strip away the stray bits of supernatural menace, the film could easily function as an historically accurate depiction of the miseries of colonial life, as well as an examination of the puritanical paranoia over perceived witches that gripped that chapter of history. At one point late in the film, the family begins to turn on itself, with members pointing fingers at each other as potential witches. It’s only our knowledge that there is an actual witch out there preying upon the family that shifts The Witch into the realm of fantasy horror. There is always an inherent distastefulness in the act of portraying genuine witchcraft amid this era in which real women were cruelly persecuted as witches due to frothing mass hysteria, and this is a transgression that The Witch is indeed guilty of committing.
But if anyone wants to be outraged over this, that’s what Twitter is for. My only aim is to discuss whether or not The Witch functions as a laudable horror film, and the answer is...mostly. Eggers creates a spare atmosphere of gloomy rural emptiness and knows how to craft tension when he needs to tighten the noose. The actors are all fantastic at embodying their God-fearing characters, and special note must be made of the child actors, all of whom do shockingly adroit work. The Seyfriedian Taylor-Joy anchors the film well, but Scrimshaw is the standout, enacting a fevered bit of otherworldly delirium at one point that is simply amazing to witness. Ineson also does wonders with making William a warmer character than he initially seems set up to be, showing each of his children paternal compassion, at least in the moments before he begins nailing them into goat enclosures as witch suspects.
And yet, it’s hard not to wish that The Witch would rise to the level of haunt-your-dreams terror that its raves seemed to promise. The film has some truly unsettling imagery (Phillip the black goat is going to dominate the conversation, but a perverse bit with a raven is the image that I’ll carry with me), especially in the final stretch, when the film quickly descends into madness. But it’s a long haul before we arrive there, and the film never quite adds up to a dread-soaked whole. Because the family remains oblivious to the supernatural forces encroaching upon them until the very end, and because those forces rarely surface even for our benefit (for the longest time, a hare that engages in staring contests is the sole representative of evil), The Witch frequently seems as though it were about little more than the drudgery of life in a bygone era. The best horror films make you feel like the walls are closing in, that the air is leaching out of the room. The Witch never quite arrives at the level of waking nightmare that the genre’s finest films (including last year’s exemplary It Follows) have managed to summon.
Even still, there is a lot to admire here (at least until a peculiarly silly parting shot). The buzz was right to herald the film for its strengths, even if the vociferousness of the praise sort of did the film in. The Witch does establish Eggers as a person of interest in the horror genre going forward. He may not have quite made the masterpiece that many have claimed, but what he has made is the promise that he has that eventual film in him. The Witch is the eye of newt, the hint of greatness, and there’s every reason to suspect that Eggers has something truly great still bubbling in his cauldron.
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