Evil Takes Many Forms
I adore this film; which may come as a surprise. Regular readers will know that I don’t review a lot of horror films because it’s the one aspect of cinema that I genuinely don’t enjoy. But this fact is actually a slight inaccuracy as the thing about horrors I don’t enjoy is the constant utilization of jump scares. The Witch, on the other hand, is an extremely smart horror film that preys on tension, suspense and unease through the use of gut-wrenching sound, wailing music, masterful performances and subtle visuals.
Set in New England in the 1630’s, a family of puritanical Christians are expelled from their community for their doctrinal interpretation of the town’s running. Eventually the group settle far from the plantation, in a clearing near a thick forest and start their new life. The family is made up of six members (William, Katherine and their four children Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy and Jonas) but a seventh is born. One day whilst playing with her new youngest sibling, Thomasin [Taylor-Joy] loses sight of baby Samuel and he vanishes. The family are distraught, Katherine [Dickie] moreso than the others, who fervently believes that her unbaptised baby is in hell. With the crops failing, William [Ineson] and his eldest son Caleb [Scrimshaw] set out into the woods to hunt for food. Unfortunately they return empty handed. Back at the homestead, the two youngest siblings, twins Mercy and Jonas [Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson], are running wild tormenting a black ram they dub Black Phillip. With food a sparse commodity and fear of what lies in the woods growing, the family unit breaks down and slowly turns on each other, accusing one another of consorting with the devil and a witch who lives in the woods.
Every single individual component is stellar. The cinematography is beautiful and continuously framed wonderfully. The setting is claustrophobic, haunting and looming; a fact cemented by the choice to shoot with a 1:1.66 aspect ratio. Much like The Revenant natural and available light have been utilized well to ensure a very real look, which also serves to highlight the exemplary production design work on the set, props and costumes. The editing is brilliant, maintaining a slow-burn suspense from start to finish, as is the invasive and unsettling audio work. And then we have the acting. Any time your story relies heavily on the performances of children you put the film in immediate jeopardy of being labelled amateur. Thankfully everyone involved, from Inseon and Dickie to all the children and even that fucking evil goat bastard are captivating. The script is penned in unfamiliar inflections and structures and being able to convey everything within the plot as well as making the dialogue sound natural is an example of extreme talent. All-in-all, this film is the epitome of mature cinema. It’s not a cash-grab sexfest with beautiful nubile teens running around screaming as they are hunted by some unseen menace, it’s a sophisticated exploration of fear and madness presented in a way only cinema can deliver.
Another aspect I thoroughly enjoy is the uncertainty. On the surface this is a very straight horror story, the likes of which have permeated through spoken history for centuries. Under that is the possibility that the depicted events did not occur in the manner they were presented. If we accept that the film is told by an unreliable narrator, the validity of the supernatural elements can be brought into question. There is a possibility that the whole thing was conjured from a paranoid state brought about by excessive hunger and religious hysteria. All of which simply adds to the level of finesse at work here. The film closes with a title card stating the majority of the language and experiences detailed originate in documented folklore and tales from the time, a fact which is clearly demonstrated early on during the disturbing ‘flying ointment’ scene.
So with this abundance of praise, are there any negative aspects to this film? In my opinion, no. I personally believe this to be a marvelous release and a credit to all involved. Having said that, I can easily highlight two or three issues that many cinemagoers will raise. Firstly, as stated earlier, despite being a genre film, The Witch sidesteps all the typical tropes and delivers something unique. Unfortunately, unique doesn’t always translate well for the mainstream. People who like their horror big, flash and gory will be sorely disappointed and feel mislead by marketing and reviews. To them, this is less a horror film and more a period drama. Said individuals may also complain that the contents are slow or boring. Once again, because it’s different from what people are used to (and therefore seek out and enjoy) they reject it. I’m quite happy to say they are wrong.. and probably stupid.. the kind of people who would make the same complaints about The Shining. The second point of contention will be the language. Anyone unfamiliar with thick Northern (English) dialects, may find absolutely anything said aloud a little hard to follow. Now, this side of things I can’t slate people for. There are countless dialects which garble vowels and make interpretation tricky. From the deepest bayous of Louisiana to the wildest parts of Western Ireland, if you have yet to experience how the English language is used, it can sound unintelligible. But I can in no way fault the film for the choice to employ authentic sounding dialogue.
Depending on your genre preferences, this film will either be loved or loathed. As someone very much in the former category, I can’t help but recommend it.
11th March 2016
The Scene To Look Out For:
I mentioned the flying ointment scene earlier, which kicks off so quickly into the film’s running time and is such an unpleasant and startling event that it lingers in the foreground of your mind. But instead I’d like to highlight the scene in which Caleb awakes. Everything about this is expertly handled and an example of how this film fires on all cylinders. Without going into too much detail, it’s a riveting, disconcerting ordeal, brilliantly acted out.
As stated above, each member of the cast not only brings an interesting and creepy performance to the film but manages to do so in a way that sounds natural and credible. No one performance reigns over the others as they each rely on one another so completely. As such, I will do the only logical thing and highlight Black Phillip, in all forms for being the creepy bastard he is.
“Dost thou want the taste of butter?”
In A Few Words:
“Psychological horror will always take a backseat to cheap base-level scares, which means a great many people will miss out on this fine feature”