17 March 2016

The Witch review

When I think of horror films, two things come to mind - torture porn and jump scares. As far as genres go I've always seen horror as the least worthwhile thanks to the amount of films that rely on one or both of those things to elicit a reaction from the audience, and my complete lack of interest in either has resulted in me dismissing the genre almost entirely. But I'm currently in the process of learning that horror doesn't have to be just gore and surprises - good horror is so much more, atmosphere and tension and imagery all combining to create something that isn't just scary in the moment, but something that stays with you for a long time afterwards.

Happily, The Witch meets my criteria for good horror. It's a film that really got under my skin without ever trying to making me jump, a film so full of tension that it never felt the need to overwhelm me with excessive violence. Set in the 17th Century, we follow an extremely God-fearing family as they attempt to make new lives for themselves after being banished from the plantation on which they used to live. Unfortunately, the forest that they choose to settle down next to is inhabited by a witch, and it isn't long before hysteria begins to tear the family apart.

The Witch is Arthur Miller's The Crucible in a world where witches really do exist, a film looking at the nature of irrationality while making it explicit that the people in question have every right to be terrified. It's a careful balancing act throughout, one that only works thanks to the films ambiguity about how much witchcraft can actually be blamed for what happens to the family. The witch is without a doubt the instigator of the films central story, but much of what happens from that point onwards could be the result of either witchcraft or just religious paranoia, and it is that which makes The Witch deeply traumatic - because for the vast majority of the films running time, it is only the audience who even know for sure that witchcraft is real, meaning that the way these characters act towards each other is based on nothing more than suspicion and doubt.

This uneasy sense of slowly-building panic combined with the knowledge that these characters might not be fully in control of their actions helps create a deeply oppressive atmosphere throughout, one supported and reinforced by some deeply unsettling imagery. When I said that The Witch doesn't resort to jump scares and torture porn I meant it, but that doesn't mean that it isn't capable of really making you squirm - it just means that it earns those moments much more than most other films out there. Like Bone Tomahawk, it is the restraint throughout that makes these moments more effective when they do appear.

And like Bone Tomahawk, by the time the shit really does hit the fan we've spent enough time with the main characters for it to really matter. It would seem that genuine empathy is the name of the game when it comes to making a horror film well, and The Witch is smart enough to ensure that you know and understand each member of the family before putting them in danger. There is a psychological reality to each and every one of them, meaning we can easily track where their heads are at throughout the film and helps make them all feel like real people - something only built upon be some truly fantastic performances from the entire cast.

Much of the dialogue in The Witch was taken from documents from the time period in which it was set, but the entire cast handle the old-timey way of speaking with ease throughout - particularly impressive when considering how young half of them are. The real stand-out is newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw as middle child Caleb, who although being just a little inconsistent at times commits so fully to his most important scene (one that must have been incredibly difficult to shoot for someone his age, by the way) that it literally left me flabbergasted. He owns that scene in ways that would make many long-established actors weep, and I really hope that his role in The Witch gives him the recognition that he so clearly deserves.

All of the above combine to make The Witch nothing less than a great film, an outstanding effort from first time director Robert Eggers, who seems to be a natural director and most certainly "one to watch". I'd like to say that The Witch is a rare treat, the kind of horror film that proves that the genre isn't just pandering to the lowest common denominator, but truthfully? For all I know there are intelligent, well-made horror films like The Witch being released each year that I simply haven't seen yet. If that's the case, please, let me know - because one thing I can say for sure is that The Witch has given my a thirst for more horror films of this calibre. And if the fact that The Witch has made me interested in a genre that I had no interest in before isn't a testament to it's quality, then I don't know what is.

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