When I first became aware of the hype surrounding The Witch, it appeared as if it would be the annual superb horror film. It’s a weird trend: year after year, there’s one film in the genre that stands out above the others. 2013 was You’re Next, 2014 was The Babadook, 2015 was It Follows. Is The Witch 2016’s marquee horror film?
There’s no denying that the horror genre is in quite the downturn. Stale ideas, remakes, and missed opportunities litter the release schedule, leading to a whole lot of humdrum. If you listened to the hype, The Witch was supposed to be a true masterpiece, one of the best films of its kind since The Exorcist. Stephen King even openly professed his love for Robert Eggers’ debut.
The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.
After constantly shuffling in my cinema seat and staring off at the ceiling through frustration and impatience, The Witch definitely hasn’t converted one more to its coven.
Opening with an abundance of atmosphere that slowly peeters out over the course of ninety minutes, The Witch had plenty of initial promise. The setting, a passionately religious New England where civilisation is only just starting to form, hasn’t been explored all that often in horror before. Old language in hushed tones means your attention is key as a family is exiled from a village to live in isolation.
Time passes as the family are shown to be struggling to adapt to the harsh conditions on their small farm. Food is in short supply as the land offers little to reap and the fog seems eternal. The cinematography is admittedly gorgeous along with the costume design. It doesn’t take long to become sucked into this nightmarish old world.
Things take a turn for the worse when the youngest member of the family is snatched by a witch. We are only ever given fleeting glimpses of the captor, which ramps up the dread factor. The omnipotent, oppressive soundtrack is exemplary, if often invasive and anti-climactic. The anxiety brought on within the first fifteen minutes of The Witch quickly evaporates, however.
Pacing is the film’s biggest downfall, constantly slowing to a snail’s crawl after key events. Never have I been more expectant of a pay-off that never arrives in the scare stakes with a horror film. The tension constantly builds and builds before fizzling out to be replaced with expository dialogue that drags and drags. The family’s conversations become drains on the atmosphere and at such low volumes that it’s a task to even understand them on many occasions.
The scares are fairly non-existent in The Witch, save for a couple of tense moments that, again, fizzle away. I’m not suggesting that more jumpscares (one of the cheapest tricks in the book) would have improved the film, but there needed to be an end result for all the creepiness evoked throughout. It falls flat too often, leading to the aforementioned seat shuffling and sighing.
There are many bright spots in the film, however. The casting is perfect with Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as the daughter, Thomasin, a revelation. The character could have become annoying or distracting in the hands of other young actors, but Joy’s dignified, conflicted portrayal is the key to the whole film. Ralph Ineson also shows unexpected depth as the father, a deeply religious man who is belittled by his domineering wife.
Perhaps I would have enjoyed The Witch more if I had tempered expectations. I went in hoping to be hiding underneath my chair throughout, but instead found myself in danger of sliding off and onto the floor for a nap. Some of the fault has to be attributed to the film’s marketing campaign. It painted The Witch as an unmissable horror classic when in fact it is more a parable revolving around a girl’s transition into womanhood. The Babadook perfected the balance of theme and terror, something that The Witch flatly fails to master.
The Witch may not be what it was made out to be, but it still has its qualities. It’s a shame that these are weighed down by its turgid pace, though it’s still a recommended watch if you’re trying to find out what the fuss is all about.
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