Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days of Horror: THE WITCH (2015)

Welcome horror fans, to Day 30 of the 31 DAYS OF HORROR! We are back with another film in our lead up to Halloween, and today we will be reviewing director Robert Eggers' feature debut, THE WITCH.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. The Witch is set in the early colonial period of New England, a time when legends of witches and the fear of witchcraft ran rampant. The story opens in one of the main Puritan settlements; we never learn its name, or its location precisely, though it is mentioned the area is a "commonwealth", so it's likely Massachusetts. A man named William (Ralph Ineson) is on trial for certain crimes, which again are not elaborated. He insists he was preaching the gospel. The leaders of the settlement say otherwise. William will not repent, so he and his family are banished into the wilderness.

Time passes, and the family have raised a simple homestead for themselves, where they live the hard life of subsistence, survival, and devotion to their faith. Things are going as well as could be expected, until the day when baby Samuel disappears from under the nose of big sister, and eldest child of the family, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). And so begins the family's slow unravelling as fear and superstition supplant whatever ties to each other they may once have had.

The Witch is a grand slow-burn psychological thriller. It's both horrifying and fascinating to watch the character flaws in William and his family grow and finally bloom into the cause of their undoing. The film's title is a bit misleading, though: The Witch is about a witch in the same sense that Star Wars is about military engagements in space. There is a witch; we see her for the first time just after baby Sam disappears, and she appears several more times throughout the film, but she has very little to do with the story. She gets things rolling, but that's about it. The Witch, then, is about fear, and the poisonous affect fear has on people. It's sort of like a period fiction take on the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street", in which fear of an impending alien invasion turns a neighborhood of people who've known each other forever into bitter enemies. Yes, there is a witch in this story; yes, the malign influence of Satan is real. But neither the witch nor Old Nick need strain themselves terribly to bring William and his family to ruin. They only have to give a little push, and then return to dig through the wreckage later.

Over the course of the story we are given evidence that this family was ripe for a fall. The loss of baby Sam while he was in Tomasin's care plants a seed of distrust for the girl that plays a key role in the family's deterioration. Just as important, though, is how long the family has been living in the colony, which is not long at all. We learn that Tomasin clearly remembers the family's former life in England, and that there they had been comparatively comfortable. It's hard to appreciate what a luxury glass windows are until you have to leave them behind. That kind of deprivation takes a toll, and I think it also has a lot to do with why the film ends the way it does.

The Witch is a horror movie for people that like to discuss movies and get into the "why" of their stories. It is a slow but steady descent into distrust and madness. It can be enjoyed on a purely entertainment level, though it is virtually bloodless by the standards of horror, and there are few of what the casual horror fan would describe as actual "scares". Here the monster lives inside your head, and all you know for sure is that it's there. Anything else is your doing.

The Witch is rated R for violent content and nudity.

Robert's Score: 10/10

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