The Witch: Spooky Goat!!!
Another one of my Most Anticipated movies, The Witch, landed this week…and I was less enthused by the results than my other nominee, Deadpool. The second trailer really made me wary that this film was going to promise one thing but deliver another: the first trailer was tight, lean, and walked a very fine line between outright supernatural chicanery and a taught psychological thriller where the only monsters were people behaving badly. The second trailer seemed to come down squarely on the former; the Devil is indeed in town and he wants your children! In the final accounting, this film does actually try to blend the two approaches by leaving some ambiguity, but the end result is a film that doesn’t quite embrace being either a straight-up horror or a psychological thriller until it is too late.
The Witch (2016)
Set in puritanical 1560’s New England, we see that a staunchly religious family is about to run out of town because they are too hard-core for the Puritans. That is hard-core, in case you were wondering. The father, William, has burned all of his bridges in a righteous fire of strict biblical interpretation, and is forced to take his wife and five children (shit, condoms are great!) out into the wilderness in order to make a living. They seem prepared for the ordeal, but maladies strike quickly and repeatedly. It seems as if there may be a more malign presence in the austere wilderness than just the unforgiving and stony New England soil.
I Need a Hero!
My first criticism of this film is that most of the characters are hard to relate to, and therefore unsympathetic. There are some good performances here, especially Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays our young heroine Thomasin, and Ralph Ineson who plays her strict and self-righteous father William. Thomasin’s brother Caleb is given a game performance by Harvey Scrimshaw, but his dialogue is mostly screamed bible verses, so you quickly begin to dread him opening his mouth. The mother and twin toddlers are painful to watch as they are unlikable, bratty and cruel. Most of the characters are incomprehensible for several reasons: thick accents and Old English speech patterns, a wide cultural gulf between their sensibilities and the audiences’, and the standard horror trope of characters constantly choosing against their self interest in order to get them into danger. This last bit was the hardest to watch, as I felt everyone, even poor Thomasin, was acting against character at least part of the time just to raise the stakes of the plot.
I did enjoy that this film flirted between identifying as a psychological horror and a pure horror film. For much of the first half, any outright horror scenes are set in such a way that nobody actually witnesses them. They could simply be the imagination of a very stressed and religiously primed group of people, most of whom are children. The problem is that the film tries to be coy after the point of no return. When somebody actually has a chance to see the monsters, you can’t play them off as unreal anymore. This film still tries to throw you off of the central premise (what if all the old witch tales from the puritans were literally true?) way after the ship has sailed. It slows things down and keeps the film from fully embracing its most powerful tools.
Folly and Tragedy
The Witch ends up being a gorgeously shot, well acted horror film that is reticent to go full tilt until it is too late. The final climactic action seems forgone and late to the party, as you’ve quickly realized that the monsters are real…and you’ve been waiting for them to eat those two bratty toddlers for what seems like forever. This movie about witches and devils needed more of both. When the film does finally decide to acknowledge the nature of the world in which the story takes place, it really becomes quite enjoyable, and has some deliciously awful imagery. Unfortunately, much like the main characters, the plot spends too much time keeping secrets and wandering around in the woods for this to be a really good horror film.
And they never get around to killing those damn brats!