Few films go as far out of the way to capture the time period of their setting as The Witch. Engaging 17th century folklore, The Witch accurately portrays early colonial life in New England down to the last hand-wrought iron nail.
It is this deep attention to detail that first drew me to director Robert Eggers’ sophomore full-length horror film. As a devotee of atmospheric, suspense-laden horror films, The Witch started full of promise.
At its core, The Witch is the story about a girl “coming into her womanhood,” as her mother describes it, outside the safe confines of her New England colony. Her father is too evangelically zealous for even the Puritan leaders of the colony and the family is banished. Alone in the hinterlands, exposed to the ravages of weather, God and Indians, the family fights for its existence. When the girl’s infant brother goes missing, wolves are blamed but something more sinister is feared. A witch is rumored to live in the woods, and their lives grow worse as the film progresses.
With the potential to become as good as a 17th century version of The Shining, The Witch falls well short of the mark. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Eggers, who also wrote the script. The cast does its best with what they have, but it is the writing that fails.
The cast is terrific. Anya Taylor-Joy, who is really in her late teens or early twenties, is brilliant as Thomasin, the 14-year-old girl at the heart of the story. She captures the innocence of early puberty, the maturity of a child forced to become an adult to help keep her family alive and together on the struggling farm while bound by the fear and ignorance of this demon-haunted time period in early America.
Ralph Ineson is sharp as Thomasin’s zealous father struggling to keep the family alive while also battling his crisis of faith and hypocrisy. Thomasin’s mother, Katherine, is played by Kate Dickie. Dickie is excellent at showcasing how the fear, the loss of an infant and the brutal social isolation can break a person down and drive them insane.
The sets and cinematography add incredible atmosphere.
With all of these details perfected, you’d think that Eggers would have remembered to include a plot. As the film unfolds, you begin to wonder where the story is leading you. The ending seems incongruous with the character developments that have transpired. Plus it would appear that there were far more witches than God-fearing residents of New England in 1630.
The movie concludes without so much of an ending but a note about how all of the things that transpired were from actual writings of the period. It is a note that would have served the film better at the start of the movie.
Plus, for a horror movie, there was remarkably little to be frightened about. There were only one or two jump scares. The rest of the film is all suspense and build up without any actual frights. A haunting violin plays long notes and discordant sounds through out the film. It builds you up but nothing ever happens. It is like a standup comic who only tells you the set ups for a joke but never delivers a punch line. It is frustrating.
The special effects are limited and potent, which is refreshing. Too many effects distract from a film. Unfortunately for this film, there wasn’t enough horror to make the effects more effective.
Ultimately, when you set this potion of a film over the cauldron to boil, The Witch stirs in far more style than substance.
–Nathaniel Cerf has made a pilgrimage to Salem, Mass. He was very disappointed by the lack of local witches and quality souvenirs of the dark arts. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.