Hype is such a mixed blessing for a movie like A24’s The Witch. Debuting in January of 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival, the response was passionate and unanimous. Reviews from the festival gave the impression that the film is an instant horror classic. In the aftermath it was impossible to not get extremely excited about seeing it. Considering it’s a low-budget production with a no-name cast, the hype was extraordinarily beneficial. The movie was picked up for distribution and is now getting a wide release.
The hype is also detrimental though. People have been waiting 13 months to see it. Over time, the anticipation hasn’t lessened. If anything, it’s only increased as impatience has grown. Now, having finally seen it, the hype has been a disservice because in some ways it’s made The Witch out to be something it’s not. For starters, it’s really not scary (but this ends up not being a negative). It’s also not an instant classic. However, it’s a very good movie, well worth seeing if you have the right expectations.
William (Ralph Ineson) is a pious man who has moved his family from England to the colonies in search of religious freedom. Unfortunately the leaders of his town are equally intolerant and banish him from the community for practicing religion in a manner they disapprove of. William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their children attempt to make a new home in the middle of nowhere near dense, ominous woods. Isolated and facing a food shortage, things go from bad to worse in a hurry.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is becoming a woman and might be forced into marriage soon, is watching her newborn brother near the woods when he suddenly and inexplicably disappears. This is the first in a series of unfortunate events. Her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) goes missing in the woods. Their only horse is lost. A distraught Katherine and shaken William fight incessantly. And it’s possible that there is a witch among them. Thomasin is the primary suspect, though she denies the accusation vehemently.
That The Witch is never scary is not a dig. It’s not really trying to be. Instead, it aims for being moody and unsettling and odd, and it is each one of those things and then some. Writer/director Robert Eggers does a masterful job developing and sustaining an eerie atmosphere. Many scenes play out in near or total silence, and you never quite know when something creepy will happen. There are startling and haunting images, though nothing is graphic or very violent.
The setting is also a huge asset. The family is completely cut off from the outside world and surrounded by woods that always manage to look threatening. It seems like they are responsible for every bad thing that happens, and nothing good ever occurs when someone is in them. Just being near them gives one a feeling of dread (character or audience member).
It is also insidious mainly because it is so subtle. Not a lot is spelled out for the viewer (and at times it’s hard to understand exactly what characters are saying). It never goes for all-out horror. It gets under your skin though, and after it’s over you’ll find yourself wondering what the hell you just saw and what it all means. You’ll also probably feel like you want to see it again in order to make more sense of it (always a good sign). As long as you go in not expecting a traditional horror movie, you shouldn’t be disappointed.
The Witch hits theaters, nationwide, today!
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Robert Eggers
Writer(s): Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Julian Richings, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Release: February 19 (wide)
Studio/Production Co: A24/Parts and Labor/RT Features/Rooks Nest Entertainment/Code Red Productions/Maiden Voyage Pictures/Mott Street Pictures
Budget: $1 million (estimate)
Length: 92 minutes