‘The Witch’ Attempts a Different Kind of Fright

By Nathan DeCorte

Robert Eggers’ The Witch opened this past weekend, but started cultivating a sinister reputation months ago. An informal endorsement by Stephen King, who said “The Witch scared the Hell out of me,” via the author’s official Twitter account, only fanned the flames of anticipation.

Our story concerns William and Katherine, an ordinary 17th century New England couple who eke out a humble existence on their secluded farm, joined by their daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, twins Jonas and Mercy, and infant Samuel. When Samuel disappears without a trace on Thomasin’s watch, the family is wracked with grief. As tragedy and unexplainable events besiege the family, William and Katherine begin to suspect that Thomasin is somehow involved.

The Witch is not a scary film in the same sense that many of its contemporaries are marketed. It does not stoop to the petty jump scares and other cheap tactics to which many horror viewers have become accustomed. Rather, it is a slow-burn, more in-line with 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, than more mainstream horror fare.

Tragedy strikes early, grounding the majority of the runtime in a prevailing sense of grief and loss, and then spends the next hour building upon that foundation until the tension reaches a fever pitch. But while I would compare The Witch favorably to Goodnight Mommy, and while I would laud its gorgeous cinematography, blood-chilling sound design, excruciatingly deliberate pacing and tension-ratcheting soundtrack, I must concede that the ultimate pay-off does leave a little something to be desired. If slow-burn films of this nature are effective, it’s usually because the last 15 or 20 minutes of the film are such an out-of-left-field sucker punch to the gut that they leave the audience reeling for hours after the end credits. And while the first 80 minutes of The Witch represent an immaculately constructed exercise in long-fuse horror, it seems that the last ten minutes run out of fuel very quickly, leaving the final reveal feeling somewhat winded.

But don’t interpret these complaints as a negative review. The Witch is a tense, sublimely crafted piece of horror cinema, and still merits a recommendation despite its flaws. The artfully written screenplay by Eggers and stellar performances by Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, Ralph Ineson as William, and Kate Dickie as Katherine go a long way towards lending a sense of credibility and believability to the proceedings and forces the audience to invest themselves in these characters and their plight.

This independent production comes off as fresh and energized compared to the glut of standard, derivative studio-produced fare that usually dominates the box office. It is already being compared favorably to the likes of 2014’s It Follows and The Babadook in terms of approach, style and impact. I might not recommend the film to everyone, as films of this nature do require a degree of patience on the part of the audience, especially since all of the dialogue is period-accurate. Viewers who struggle with Elizabethan English may wish to avoid this picture. Additionally, viewers just looking for a quick thrill will likely find the film more tedious than exhilarating. But if films that radiate an uncompromising mood of gloom and existential horror are more your speed than cheap jump scares and buckets of gore, then look no further.

Nathan DeCorte can be reached at nathan.decorte@spartans.ut.edu.

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