The Witch trades in thrills to deliver unbelievable chills

Photos courtesy A24.

No, it’s not the scariest movie ever made. It may, however, be the scariest movie ever made entirely about boobs.

Set in the 1600s a few decades before the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch follows a Puritan family banished from their plantation over William’s (Ralph Ineson) religious disagreements with the local government. William and his family — pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) — move a day’s ride toward the forest and set up a farm. Several months later, Katherine has given birth and farm construction is underway. Tensions are high already as the family’s harvest is succumbing to rot, but things really start to go wrong when the newborn, Samuel, is abducted by the witch who lives in the woods.

Leave your expectations at the door on this one. The Witch is a rigidly atypical film, to the point that it’s not even scary if you only measure it by conventional horror standards. Calling it a slow burn would be the understatement of the year so far. Despite a runtime that’s almost too short for a feature film, the eternal average shot length — most shots hold for around 10 seconds, only a handful are fewer than three — and frequent smash-cuts to a black screen make the movie feel like it takes eons. More than that, there are exactly two jump scares, and those are both stretches for several reasons. Movies that rely on the sort of scare The Witch eschews aren’t really scary, and aren’t really meant to be — they’re meant to make viewers jump and get them horny.

No one’s going to want to have sex after watching this.

William is definitely a Christ figure, this goat is literally the devil and there’s obviously a lot of Garden of Eden, Last Supper and Job stuff, but beyond that, the film’s full religious context will require more viewings than I’m willing to go to to understand, and will be the topic of a later post.

The Witch is an absolute masterpiece of tone and atmosphere. The other problem with jump scares as a concept is they release tension for the viewer, leaving movies that can only bring viewers to the edge of their seats for several seconds at a time. The Witch is 93 minutes long, and and you will be on the edge of your seat for 93 minutes. Even during those climactic moments, it’s clear that the harrowing will only continue. The meticulous period trappings and the needling score never let up either, giving the film a constant sense of isolation and discomfort or worse. Between the pace, the fantastic immersion and the lack of true release, the viewer feels trapped by the film, almost desperate for the jump scares that never come, just to relieve the tension.

The Witch is less about its barely there plot and more about writer/director Robert Eggers’ personal religious views expressed through symbolism, which the movie is packed with. As mentioned, the most striking imagery is about fertility and corrupting the reproductive cycle — boobs. Breastfeeding is a core motif in the film, as are Thomasin’s developing breasts and Caleb’s fascination with them. Though her sexuality is in the background when not being ogled by her younger brother, the film focuses more and more intently on Thomasin as it wears on. This imagery also extends to the family’s farm animals, with blood coming out of a goat’s udder and a half-developed fetus exposed by a dropped chicken egg also contributing to the theme.

Animals are another way the movie expresses its creepiness, primarily through Black Phillip, the goat which Mercy and Jonas claim speaks to them and which they say accuses Thomasin of being a witch. Phillip is obviously not scary on his own — he’s just a goat — but the film turns him into a thing of unstoppable dread, having him absorb the macabre events around him like a sponge. There’s a power inherent in movies to make elements seem a certain way through osmosis, but its something I’ve never seen directed this intentionally before.

In terms of religious symbolism, what’s offscreen and only discussed is just as important as what’s onscreen. Caleb claims to have seen an apple tree on the way to their new home, and a couple of different characters lament how long it’s been since they had an apple. Katherine’s silver chalice, another object with overt religious overtones, is stolen by William and traded to American Indians for hunting equipment offscreen. The apple and the chalice get one climactic on-screen cameo each, which I’ll not spoil. Watch and listen for these things.

With its central family having crossed the Atlantic Ocean and then been banished by the people who crossed it with them over religion, their unique form of Protestantism is obviously a big key to understanding this film. They’re clearly fire-and-brimstone type believers, and an uncomfortable number of their conversations revolve around Original Sin. They believe one cannot go to Heaven without being baptized, but also observe confession and pray frequently to renew their redemption, though strangely, all their confessions are directed to each other, not a priest. Finally, with one notable exception, all prayers are directed toward a vengeful God, pointing out that Jesus died for their sins so they should not be punished. Only one prayer is to Jesus himself.

This is where the film starts to have problems. The Witch uses dialogue as a key tool to drive not just its plot, but its symbolism as well. This is not only unimaginative from a general film theory perspective, but a particular difficulty for this film because most of the dialogue is unintelligible. As part of the obsessive dedication to period accuracy, Eggers had his actors speak in harsh Yorkshire/Scottish accents and crafted the dialogue and plot elements from period-accurate records and diaries, even falling back on Shakespeare at some points. The film’s rich detail is commendable, but when the minutia of the lines are so important, they need to be understandable.

A lot of praise has come the film’s way for its meticulously crafted period setting, and that’s a little misguided. I go to a renaissance fair once every two or three years like everyone else, because that’s about how often I find period detail impressive on its own merit. If you have a movie set in a long-lost time period, it’s nice to have historians’ praise, but at the end of the day, it’s just a setting, something every movie has. The only difference between this type of reverence for the period and a completely made-up futuristic setting is the level of creativity it requires, and movies set in the past actually come out on the losing end of that comparison.

Lastly, there are a couple of things that just feel like gaffs. Two shots are very noticeably cut short. In a movie this carefully crafted, it’s hard to point anything out as unintentional, but it’s also tough to figure why these shots cut off like they do. The ending is so out of character, one has to wonder if this is the Sundance cut of the movie.

There isn’t enough that can be said about the acting, particularly Taylor-Joy as the main-ish character and Scrimshaw for this kind-of exorcism scene, in which he screams his troublingly sexualized love for Christ. He maintains peak mania for the duration of the take, which lasts over a minute.

The Witch represents another victory for audience testing and primarily viral marketing. It was originally slated for a direct-to-streaming release, but test audiences loved it so much that A24 shifted to an aggressive wide release with a heavy focus on Internet advertising. It’s doing quite well in just under 2,000 theaters, though nothing ever stood a chance of knocking off Deadpool, which is itself another testament to listening to test audiences and aiming marketing at the Internet.

This is the second arthouse horror movie in as many years to be marketed as the scariest in a generation and draw heavy comparisons to The Shining, with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows filling the role last year. It’s an apt description and comparison for both movies — they’re both shot with an eye for detail that rivals Stanley Kubrick’s legendary anal-retention, they both have biting scores that dominate the film, both are primarily driven by symbolism and, given the state of horror movies after the mid-80s slasher boom, being the scariest movie in a generation isn’t really the distinction it sounds like. It Follows made $14.7 million in the U.S. after a drawn-out theatrical run that never saw it in more than 1,655 theaters, and while The Witch is on track to make good money this weekend, it will probably flame out in wide release and end up at around the same number. That could be enough money that this type of advertising becomes a trend and we’ll get a new “scariest movie in a generation” two or three times a year. However, if they all genuinely deserve to be compared to The Shining, it’ll be worth it.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I will always pity you for the fun you will never have. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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