Recently, it’s been almost impossible to not see a teaser, trailer or new poster for The Witch. Much like Goodnight Mommy last year, The Witch is being promoted as the best horror movie of the year and it’s only February. After winning over audiences at Sundance in 2015, it is currently at a fever pitch of hype. I bring up Goodnight Mommy because I actively avoided all teasers and trailers for that film and my viewing experience was the better for it and The Witch is now in that same camp. After only reading a tiny bit about the film, I basically went into the screening with no idea of what I was in for. Now that the film has officially been given the seal of approval by the Satanic Temple, the movie studio has updated the movie from a “New England Folktale” to “ A Satanic Fairy Tale” and, really, can horror movie advertising get more fantastical than this? Don’t think so. What does all of this hype mean, though? Will it help or hinder audience reaction to it? I have a sinking feeling that it will backfire because the trailers are selling a different film than the one that is delivered. So, which aspect of this is the real negative?
Writer/director Robert Eggers brings us the story of a deeply religious family who immigrates from England to New England in 1630. Rather than be banished from the Colonial plantation where they currently reside, the patriarch moves his family to a deserted piece of land that is bordered by a mysterious and ominous forest. Anyone who’s ever seen a horror film knows that nothing good resides in a forest, therefore, this family has precious little time before their world is turned upside down.
As is heavily shown in the trailers, it’s the disappearance of baby Samuel while under the watch, or rather, lack of, during a game of peek-a-boo, of oldest child Thomasin. While we get to see baby Samuel’s true fate, the family points the finger of blame at a wolf. As matriarch Katherine spends days praying for her lost baby’s soul, her other children try to make sense of what is happening. Caleb is compelled to protect his older sister while the twins, Mercy and Jonas, seem nonplussed by the entire situation. In fact, they are often singing, dancing and interacting with one of the goats, whom they refer to as Black Philip. Despite goats having a bit of a popular streak right now with their peculiar brand of parkour and hilarious yelling, Black Philip does not seem like the kind of goat that you want to play with.
The family’s isolation from society while they’re plagued by misfortune after misfortune allows for a slow build of paranoia that easily pulls you in. In a precursor to the witch trials, Thomasin, played with startling maturity by Anya Taylor-Joy, is accused of witchcraft by the twins and Katherine, in her grief, is easily swayed by this accusation. Katie Dickie (Game of Thrones) gives us a Katherine who is barely sympathetic to begin with and it’s just a downward spiral as the film progresses. She’s also the proud owner of the most cringe worthy scene in the film. Unwavering in his love for her, Katherine’s husband, William, (Ralph Ineson) does everything that he can to placate her, even buying into her paranoia and accusing Thomasin of witchcraft as well. Thomasin isn’t going down without a fight, though, and she proclaims that the twins are actually the one’s who conspire with the devil via Black Philip.
Between the unsuccessful trips into the woods, the rot and death plaguing the family farm, possessions and deaths, everyone is susceptible to mania and everyone is a suspect. An obvious commentary on, and indictment of, Christianity, all of the events that happen to this family occur because of William’s pride. His pride is what drove them to their isolated farm and his pride is what keeps them from getting help. The fact that the Satanic Temple has declared The Witch “a transformative Satanic experience” only drives all of this home. God is bad and the Devil is good.
With some supremely gorgeous scenery, beautiful static shots and incredibly wonderful and time appropriate lighting, the film is a feast for the eyes. One scene, in particular, really exemplifies Eggers unwavering attention to detail: while William breaks bread with his family, it looks as though a Georges De La Tour painting has come to life. This minimalist lighting will come into play again during Katherine’s harrowing possession scene and it’s simply sublime. To go along with this visual lushness is an impressively stark, powerful score courtesy of Mark Korven. Hell, even the Foley work in this movie deserves a shout out: the sound of chopping wood has never been so startling. To say that this film is gorgeous from head to toe would be an understatement. No detail has been overlooked and this kind of love always shows through in the final product.
After all of the praise that I’ve just showered upon The Witch, I implore anyone reading this review to stop watching the trailers. Stop. Just stop. Trailers have become a pox on the movie world and the ones created for this film imply a fast moving possession film. They also show far too much of the story. This is a movie that builds it’s pace at an expert level in order to properly envelope you into the fear and paranoia. Also, it must be said that not everyone was a fan of the time appropriate vernacular used in the film. So, reaching back to that Goodnight Mommy comparison, viewing trailers or teasers for this movie kind of does it a disservice because you may expect something other than what you get and that tends to be a buzzkill for a lot of people. Bottom line: watch The Witch because it’s a feast for the senses and feels like a breath of fresh air, but please don’t view anymore of it’s advertising.