If I had to choose my favorite film genre, it would probably be horror. I watch more horror films than anything else, and I was starting to fear that I had seen it all. It had been a while since I had seen a horror film that genuinely scared me. I’m hesitant to say that “The Witch” scared me, but it is by far the best horror movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.
The film takes place in early 17th century New England, the main characters being a family of six immigrated from England: two parents, a daughter, a son, a pair of twins and a baby. The family is banished from a settlement and driven into the wilderness of colonial America, where evil lurks in the woods. The eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), watches the baby, and during a game of peek-a-boo, the baby disappears. Left in his wake is paranoia, betrayal and witchcraft.
“The Witch” gives us something different. This isn’t the type of horror film that’s inundated with jump scares or CGI tricks. I wouldn’t call it “fun” either. So if that’s what you are wanting or expecting, you may be disappointed.
Instead, it gives us slow-cooked tension, rich character development and an acute awareness of what’s on screen and what isn’t. You see what the film wants you to see, by which I mean what’s off screen is often as important as what is on it. The film’s horror isn’t easily accessed; it’s found by following a careful yet challenging plot. Essentially, the viewer constructs the horror.
I think what I appreciated the most about “The Witch” is that the witch herself was left a mystery. I feel that in horror films, the monster’s grand reveal is always flat because it’s never as scary in reality as you imagined it to be. We do see the witch, but without giving too much away, I argue that it’s done in a way that leaves the depths of her horror to the viewer.
One of the hardest things about enjoying horror films is suspending disbelief. It’s absolutely vital to a horror film that it immerse the viewers, that the viewers forgets they are watching a movie. The worst thing a horror movie can do is call attention to the horror—ideally, the script, acting, special effects, etc., that make the horror should do so themselves.
That is another thing “The Witch” does particularly well. The acting is phenomenal, led primarily by a cast of children, and by withholding certain information from us such as the nature of “The Witch,” I did forget I was watching a movie. I was fully engrossed in the story and in watching this family tear itself apart.
The actor I was particularly impressed by was Taylor-Joy. I think it’s rare to find a young actor who is able to grapple with the complexity of horror, loss and the movement from childhood to puberty. But really, the strongest performances in the film were the child actors, including Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy) and Lucas Dawson (Jonas). And this is coming from someone who typically has no patience for the hokey-ness that usually accompanies child acting.
I wouldn’t call the film “scary,” mainly because I found the horror to be much deeper, much more psychological, than “scary.” Rather, “The Witch” gradually fills you with a sense of dread, and the movie knows exactly which buttons to press. I can’t say enough good things about it. The setting, pacing, acting, direction, were all so good. Director and screenwriter Robert Eggers knew what he was doing. It all worked.
So if you like movies that stay with you after you leave the theater, this is for you.