Every year there seems to be that one can’t miss horror movie. A movie so hyped up that it becomes the one horror movie at the top of everyone’s “must see” list. Usually a hit on the festival circuit the year before it quickly becomes every critic’s proof that the horror genre is alive and well (as if it disappeared). More often than not it ends up disappointing like 2014’s The Babadook. But every now and then the hype is absolutely justified like last year’s It Follows. Now this year it is Roger Eggers’ film The Witch.
Facing banishment from his colonial plantation prideful father William takes his family and starts a new farm next to the New England forest. A forest containing an unknown evil. His family is torn apart when his youngest disappears and his crops fail. The family’s loyalties are further tested when daughter Thomasin is accused of witchcraft by her own siblings. Are they right or is suspicion and paranoia driving this settler family insane?
Now one of the biggest selling points of The Witch was director Robert Eggers. Every preview I saw pushed the fact that he won the Sundance Director award of a US Dramatic film. Certainly an impressive feat for a director let alone a first timer like Eggers. His sharp eye for detail mixed with some amazing sets transport us to the 17th century the way few period pieces can. Showing more restraint than most first time directors Eggers takes his time creating a slow burning horror tale. Using the dark to his advantage he does a great job of giving you just enough of a look to ratchet up the tension to it’s peak. The last act in particular is a perfect example of how to build up terror.
While I give credit Eggers for this a big reason this film works is the cast. Game of Thrones actors Ralph Inesen and Kate Dickie are simply great as William and Katherine, respectively. Playing the religious heads of the family the two are able to display menace as well as desperation as paranoia spreads among the family. As good as they are it is Anya Taylor-Joy who really shines in The Witch. She becomes our film’s protagonist when her family blames her for their misfortune for simple slips of the tongue and being at the wrong places at the wrong times. While a bit obvious these comparisons to the Salem Witch Trials are quite effective. By the end you are sympathetic to her plight and totally understand her actions at the end of the film.
So the film has a great director and even better acting it should be perfect, right? Not exactly. Unfortunately like The Babadook I just didn’t find the film all that scary. Again the build up is superb but I never found the pay off to be satisfying. Given I don’t need to it to be a Saw-esque bloodbath or a Shyamalan style twist, heck the film is better for avoiding these tropes. I just wish we got more than we did.
Walking out of the The Witch one movie came to mind, The Exorcist. Like William Friedkin’s classic I see the this movie looks amazing. Director Robert Eggers crafts the kind of creepy atmosphere and builds up suspense most other film makers dream of. I also totally see why it is effective for some, particularly people with a religious background. Sadly like The Exorcist I just don’t find it scary. As good as the build up is I can’t say I was ever really scared. That said I look forward to whatever the crew behind this movie does next. There’s obvious talent in front of and behind the camera and certainly worth a look in the future.