MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Supernatural Horror/ Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Julian Richings, Bathsheba Garnett. Sarah Stephens, Charlie the Goat; Voice of: Wahab Chaudhry/Runtime: 92 minutes
I think it is safe to say that those of us who make up the film reviewing community have learned many lessons during our time doing what we do best, but if there is one lesson that consistently stays with us it is that it is more difficult than you might think for us to choose to take on and write about a slice of cinema that has any degree of religion attached to it in even the slightest. The reason for this is because no matter how well-written or nonbiased your review may be, it is pretty much a given that by and large you are going to ruffle someone’s feathers because they either aren’t onboard with how the given religion is being shown in that particular slice of cinema, how the reviewer in question is responding to that portrayal of that given religious background, or both. As a result, I would just like to get this review underway by first and foremost issuing out a heartfelt and genuinely sincere apology to anyone of the Puritan faith who may choose to read this review and who are probably already miffed with how their faith is being portrayed in the taut and riveting slice of cinema I am reviewing today, 2015’s The Witch. Indeed this colonial-era spook saga, which has been provided with a subtitle that reads “A New England Folktale”, is a slice of cinema that even the very first time I saw this 7 years ago has always reminded me to some degree of the ORIGINAL Wicker Man (note the word original in big and bold letters) in how this slice of cinema, much like that one, sees members of a very out-of-touch society desperately tries to pick out signs of something divine in how nature works around them even if the results aren’t always advantageous to the people who are looking for them. More to the point, this slice of cinema is one that operates in an environment out of something you’d see in The Crucible, albeit one that is given a legitimately creepy and otherworldly vibe to it rather than the Crucible’s air of straight up paranoia, and a genuine vibe of realism as if this long buried narrative has just been uncovered by historians and is now being regaled to us in a cinematic format. Now it is worth mentioning that this film doesn’t really operate with the typical components of a modern day horror film aka cheap jump scares or buckets of blood and gore (yes there are some disturbing moments in this slice of cinema, but they are wonderfully restrained). Rather, this slice of cinema takes another note from Wicker Man in that it chooses to give us a slow rise in an uneasy feeling that eventually gives way to a truly ominous and menacing atmosphere that as the narrative goes along is wonderfully always present. As a result, this means those wanting a blood and gore fest are going to walk away from this and feel like it was a complete and utter waste of an hour and a half that they sadly wish they could now get back. On the other hand, if you are on the same wavelength as this slice of cinema’s atmosphere of feeling almost like a nightmare or an actual folktale from that era brought vividly to life, this is one slice of cinema that, with the aid of phenomenal helmsmanship, terrific work done behind the camera especially in terms of production design in making us feel like we have actually gone back to this specific period in time, and a group of performances that are terrific in how naturally the actors seem like they fit in with the time period that we are being taken back to, will definitely prove to be right up your darkened alley in the best way possible.
The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to the 17th Century in what is now known as New England, The Witch introduces us to a devoutly religious family led by scraggly-bearded patriarch William who as the movie opens have just been banished by their settlement’s governing body for reasons that are never really specified, but have something to do with how they have been practicing their Puritan religious beliefs. At any rate, we quickly see that the family makes their way to a new stomping ground near a deep and completely foreboding woods and establish a homestead there. Yet right from the get-go it’s clear that whilst this is one family dynamic that has its fair share of cracks, things soon come to a head when the family’s oldest daughter Thomasin, who is expected to keep an eye on her younger siblings, takes her baby brother Samuel near the woods only for him to inexplicably and horrifically vanish during a routine game of Peek-a-Boo with no clue whatsoever as to what has happened to him….even if we do swiftly get a possible answer as to that question that I shan’t spoil here. At any rate, it isn’t long after Samuel’s tragic disappearance that this family unit really begins to fall apart with Katherine either in the throes of woe and misery or in giving Thomasin hell for literally everything she can think of, William dealing with his own sins, and the remaining children dealing with their own individual demons including puberty/growing up, trying to live as holy a life as possible, and just being straight up brats to say nothing of spending time with a very ominous-looking black goat by the name of Black Phillip respectively. Suffice it to say that an internal powder keg has now been lit and although there might be a sinister evil lurking in the nearby woods, it is the imploding on both a spiritual and a psychological level family dynamic that might just be the scariest thing of them all…..
Now it should be noted that the fact that the family has a black goat given the ominous name of Black Phillip is part of a wonderful collection of tropes put into play by this film’s director since in a lot of religions the goat is known as being a symbol for Ol’ Scratch himself. Yet between the creepy goat, the two younger kids feeling like they would fit right in with the Children of the Corn, a milking session turned forebodingly bloody, the harvest mysteriously going bad, and of course several eerie disappearing acts I think it can be safely said that this slice of cinema is chock full of unexplainable wickedness or at the very least of some malevolent force working in these people’s lives. Yet as that is going we see that this slice of cinema simultaneously chooses to slowly but surely raise the tension between the family members to such a level that this film darn near could be viewed as a honest analysis of a family having a complete and utter mental collapse that is only made worse by the belief held by the family heads that every calamity that they are stricken with is a way for God to test them. Yet despite the family patriarch continuously urging the kids to put faith in the Lord it’s clear that the film is trying to say that in the world of this film unchecked holiness won’t merely keep monsters at bay; rather it might also inadvertently create some new ones as well. Yet the reason I said darn near earlier is because we quickly discover that this film’s helmer is not satisfied with giving us a story that merely suggests the presence of the supernatural only to then give a perfectly rational explanation for everything going on. Instead, this is a director who is by his own admission utterly riveted by the stories and the various pictures and symbols from the era this film takes place (right down to ingeniously incorporating selections from actual written accounts from the era into this film’s selection of dialogue), by the horror and superstitious ways that these people had when things they couldn’t explain occurred in their lives, and by how supernatural horror films have done a grand job over the years of playing with those fears in mind. Indeed if this slice of cinema is one that can be interpreted as a cautionary saga about the danger of the wrong kind of religious faith being left unchecked and permitted to drive a family to madness, it at the same time also strives to give the other side of the coin its proper representation as well. A feat it manages to achieve by becoming a film that also functions as a waking cinematic nightmare where you are never entirely sure where reality has decided to hit pause for a bathroom break and where fantasy has come in with a big bowl of popcorn and taken over for a while.
Of course, the potency of this film is also magnified beautifully by how skilled the work behind the camera is. Work that really speaks volumes of the seemingly 25/8 research and devotion by every department in making this slice of cinema look like we have somehow gone back in time to the 17th century from the incredible work on the sets by Craig Laithrop, the fantastically period accurate costumes from Linda Muir, the top-notch work by the editing department headed by Louise Ford, and especially from Mark Korven’s fantastically bleak and ominous musical score. Suffice it to say every person behind the camera does a wonderful job at making sure their work is able to fit into the eerie and creepy vibe of the film and come together into a truly frightening whole and in that regard this slice of cinema is an unequivocal success. Along with that wonderful work however is the terrific no-holds barred approach by this slice of cinema’s cast who share their helmer’s dedication and passion for the material 110% and who all bring their absolute best to this film. Indeed in the role of the well-meaning albeit slightly in denial about just how badly his family dynamic is crumbling away under him family patriarch William, we see the gravely-voiced Ralph Ineson bring a terrific sense of gravity to the part and in the role of the family matriarch Katherine, we get a terrific turn from Katie Dickie as a woman who may let a degree of humanity shine through every now and then, but who in the wake of her baby disappearing and all the other creepy things going on has finally started to lose her marbles and when she does it is truly unnerving and terrifying in the best way possible. As for the pair of leads who are a bit more on the younger spectrum I can safely say that they both are able to do equally as wonderful work as their adult peers. Indeed whether he is questioning his father about faith or just simply trying to keep the family together, we see that Harvey Scrimshaw is downright magnetic as Caleb plus his exit from the film is one that is truly chilling in the best way possible. However if there is a single cast member who manages to walk away with this film, it would have to be Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of Thomasin. Indeed skilled at being able to look simultaneously innocent yet also smugly aware, Taylor-Joy does a wonderful job as the movie goes on at becoming the voice of reason in a situation and world where reason is in horrifically short supply. Indeed it is one heck of a film debut and it’s no wonder that Taylor-Joy has really gone on to become one of the best up and coming actresses in the land of movie magic.
All in all as stated at the beginning of this review, making the choice to view the slice of cinema that is The Witch as a pureblooded horror film is a choice that, although this slice of cinema definitely fits within that genre, is also not entirely accurate either. That is because when a movie goer hears that a particular film is of the horror genre, they more often than not will see their mind assume that the film in question will contain chills, jump scares, evil or sinister forces of some variety, a cast of characters that are mostly expendable, and maybe just maybe some comedy thrown in to help the audience deal with the scares being hurtled their way. Yet this slice of cinema is most assuredly not like that. Rather, this is the kind of horror that is the very definition of a slow burn, and one that for an hour and a half leaves you in a continuous state of ominous dread at what you eventually see unfurl before your very eyes. Yet perhaps the biggest distinction between this and the vast majority of other horror films as of late is the fact that with a lot of those horror films, the terrible things you witness in them eventually fade from memory (usually after the credits have finished rolling either at home or in the theater). With this slice of cinema, it is one that I can promise you will stay with you for a good long while. Suffice it to say that this is perhaps the biggest and best (?) strength that this slice of cinema has working for it. Sure it has terrific work done behind the camera in making the film feel as authentic to the time period this is set in as possible and which it is immensely successful in doing so. Sure it also has a terrific cast in front of the camera who not only play this film’s cast of characters as three dimensional human beings, but also as naturalistic as possible. Ultimately though, the best thing about this film is how it plays less like a scare fest and more like a nightmare that will, when the breeze is crisp and the moon full and aglow, will come out of the dark and remind you of everything you saw. Yet as try as hard as you can to be free of it you won’t be successful. Not because what happens in this film is real, but because how do you get rid of a nightmare you are reminded of only when you are awake? Make of that therefore what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Witch a solid 4 out of 5.