There’s never any shortage of scary films to watch during spooky season and one that comes up quite frequently is The Witch. Directed by Robert Eggers, the film is notable for being the film debut of Anya Taylor-Joy, as well as using only 17th-century English in its dialogue. Moreover, Eggers used natural light whenever possible, which makes the setting feel all the more ‘real’ to the audience.
What The Witch Means to Us
The first things I can remember hearing about The Witch was that it was a colonial era horror film – an unusual era for the genre – and that first-time director Robert Eggers had all the dialogue be period correct. Oh, and that it was pretty good. None of that prepared me for the experience of watching The Witch for the first time. The setting, the dialogue, the acting, the cinematography – it all worked together to initiate and develop a sense of almost overwhelming dread. From the first time the family sees the location (near the deep woods) where they will set up their homestead I was ready for something awful to happen. And awful things DO happen. But they’re rarely in-your-face horror. The dread lives in the long shots of just trees. In the too-aware stares of rabbits and goats. In the madness and terror and misery that lingers on the faces of each character. In whispered words that promise freedom. I’ve seen the film a few times since that first viewing, and the dread still lingers, even knowing what’s about to happen. Maybe because I know what’s about to happen. And I love this film for that.
Ahhhh The VVitch. What a picture. After falling head over heels in love in with Eggers’ The Lighthouse I decided to go back and check out his first flick. Spoiler alert: I fell head over heels in love with The VVitch as well. It’s a modern classic and has all of the ingredients of a film worthy of The Canon. Atmospheric horror has never hit so hard. Droning wide shots of the forest have never been so terrifying. Goats and rabbits have never looked so sinister. Eggers’ ability to make this time period feel so real and alive, yet so relatable to contemporary audiences is certainly a feat worth celebrating. It represents everything that is great about modern horror and the direction of the industry going forward. Three cheers for Black Phillip and for those who would like to live deliciously.
A Frightening Folk Tale
I’ve been curious about The Witch ever since it came to theaters in 2015. I meant to see this movie then, but between life obligations and a general fear of the subject matter, I’d never gotten around to it. And as the years passed, the tales of how frightening this story could be grew and grew. Fast forward to 2023 and I finally summoned the nerve to see The Witch for myself and found it to be everything I’d been told and more.
The Witch is set in New England in 1630 and follows a Puritan family exiled to the wilderness after clashing once too often with the community on matters of religion. At first, it seems the family will get by on their own, as they build a small farm and grow crops. But then the youngest child disappears…and strange things start to happen in the woods.
The best words I can use to describe The Witch are ‘disturbing’ and ‘unnerving.’ Unlike some horror films, The Witch keeps its scares mostly in the background, unseen. Director Robert Eggers leaves most of what is happening to the viewer’s imagination, which makes it all the more frightening.
Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
Of all the horror sub-genres that can be found, folk horror is my favorite and The Witch is a prime example. What makes it really frightening is that there are two possible interpretations of what’s going on. The first option is that everything in the film can be taken at face value and there really is a coven of witches in the forest. The second, but no less frightening option is this: the family is succumbing to mass hysteria and it’s all in their heads. No matter which interpretation you go with, it’s a horrifying situation. In fact, the latter option might be worse because they wouldn’t even have the excuse of being manipulated by the Devil.
Personally, I subscribe to the belief that there really are supernatural things happening to the family in this story, and to Thomasin in particular. It’s the best explanation for the climactic moment when Thomasin finally speaks with Black Phillip, in a scene that will chill you to the bone despite the fact that the Devil’s voice never raises above a whisper. I almost wish that Black Philip’s human form could be seen more clearly, but it makes sense that Eggers would keep this character in the shadows; he is the Devil after all, and characters like that are best kept to the shadows, it keeps them mysterious and frightening.
Speaking of Black Philip, the film does an exceptional job using animals to hint at the idea that something is terribly wrong in the woods surrounding the family’s farm. It’s done so subtly that you don’t notice at first, but when the camera closes in on the hare seen throughout the story, and particularly Black Philip the goat, there’s a somewhat unnatural look about these animals. They look at the camera with an intelligence they shouldn’t possess and it slowly dawns on the viewer that….maybe these animals aren’t animals.
The Witch is definitely a film that will stick with you long after the credits roll. It’s a frightening story made all the more overwhelming by the sense that it’s the type of horror that could happen anywhere….at any time….to anybody.
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