The Witch – Review
A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
Welcome back to Knockout Horror. We are now past the halfway point of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature. For day 17 we are taking a look at Robert Eggers’ phenomenal horror hit The Witch (Stylised as the The VVitch due to the letter “W” basically not being a thing back when the movie was set).
The Witch was a huge success for Eggers and something of a surprise for the horror genre. Marking Eggers’ feature film directional debut, The Witch is a slow moving period horror movie beautifully shot and incredibly well acted. Loved by critics, unsurprisingly The Witch divided viewers.
There was an insane level of hype for this movie. It could be argued it would be almost impossible for it to live up to said hype. Some found it too slow, some didn’t find it scary, many didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Others, however, myself included, really enjoyed the movie for what it is – a fantastic folk horror. With that in mind, let’s take a look at The Witch. As always I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie that can be skipped if you like.
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We have been reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. I intended these reviews to be a bit of a shorter format but it kind of didn’t work out that way. Still, we have plenty left with nearly two weeks of October remaining so keep checking back. We are featuring a range of movies from horror classics to international hits and a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire K-O-Ween feature by clicking right here.
The Witch (2015) – Synopsis
The Witch opens with a family talking in front of a court room. It becomes apparent that the family belong to a group of English puritan immigrants to America. The family is involved in a religious dispute with the plantation that they live on. The father, William played by Ralph Ineson, claims the court are false Christians. The court banishes the family from the plantation leaving them to head off with all of their belongings.
The family build a farm next to a forest where they attempt to grow crops, raise cattle for milk and meat and raise chickens for eggs. The mother, Katherine played by Kate Dickie, has recently had another child, a boy called Samuel. She requests that her eldest daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, take the baby off her hands for a little while. Thomasin goes to the edge of the woods with Samuel. While there, she plays a game of hide and seek with the baby. Upon uncovering her eyes, the baby is suddenly gone and nowhere in sight.
The family launch a search for the boy but he cannot be found. Katherine, distraught at the loss, spend her days and nights praying for his return or for him to go to heaven. Samuel, due to being born after the family were banished, was unbaptised.
Something in the Forest – Synopsis Cont.
Caleb, played by Harvey Scimshaw, gets up early in the morning. He sneaks around the house while everyone sleeps. Noticing Thomasin asleep on the floor, he appears to lustfully stare at her breasts. After she wakes, Caleb heads outside where his dad is waiting. William takes Caleb along with him into the forest. He tells Caleb about how the family will need to hunt for their food. He has sold Katherine’s silver cup, a treasured family heirloom, to buy traps for catching animals.
Caleb confronts his dad about Samuel and asks will his soul go to hell. Caleb has been lusting over Thomasin and believes he is living in sin. This prompts him to ask if he will go to hell too. Suddenly, a hare appears. William readies his aim and fires only for the gun to recoil in his face. Back at the farm the young twins, Jonas and Mercy, are chasing a black goat around the farm and singing a song about Black Phillip. The goat is running wild and knocks a returning William into the mud. Thomasin is instructed to go to the brook to wash her dad’s clothes. Caleb is told to follow her and bring back some water.
At the brook, Caleb once again stares at Thomasin’s cleavage. The pair hear a noise only to realise Mercy is hiding. She pretends to be a witch and claims that she saw one at the edge of the forest. She thinks this witch took Samuel and blames Thomasin. Thomasin tells her that she is actually a witch and will eat her if she tells anyone about it. Mercy runs home and Caleb chastises Thomasin for scaring the young girl. Little do they know, Mercy may have actually been telling the truth.
A Haunting Period Horror
The Witch sparked something of a revival in the folk horror genre. It’s easy to see its influence in movies such as Gwen and the like. This is something that happens whenever a great movie comes along. People realise the untapped potential of a certain style of filmmaking and everyone wants to have a go. It’s probably fair to say, however, that none of these movies did it quite as well as Robert Eggers did with The Witch.
Folk Horror often focuses on a concept rather than outright horror. The innate fear of something that is present in the character’s every day life. This builds the tension and atmosphere right from the start and the director’s job is to drag the viewer into this world. There is almost a fairy tale element to a lot of folk horror and The Witch is no different.
Almost Fairy tale Like
The thought of there being something ominous in the woods is a tale as old as time and extremely effective. Fairy tales have been used for centuries to warn people of the dangers away from home. The Witch puts a spin on this a little by bringing that fear closer to home and making it almost unescapable. Despite the vast expanses of the world around the family, everything feels incredibly claustrophobic. Nowhere around them is safe and the ground at their farm is barren. They are essentially trapped and unable to escape their terror. Given that they are so religious, many of those said terrors are in their head, the entire family are never at peace.
The sense of impending doom and confusion felt by the family is extremely well done. The period setting of the 1600’s establishes the family’s belief structure and adds a sense of authenticity to the character’s reactions. The fear of witches and the unknown was all too real for people back then. The need to be pious and without sin meant that people were persecuted for the slightest little thing. Banishment from your community meant a life or death struggle against the elements and an unforgiving land. This adds a sense of desperation to everything the family go through. In our modern world, it might not be easy to relate to the characters in The Witch but you can sympathise with their plight.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke decided to film The Witch in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio which lends the movie a very antiquated look. You do not see a lot of movies that look like this nowadays and it will likely stand out straight away to people who watch mainly modern media. Somehow the black bars at the side of the image feel almost as old as the period the movie was set in. It’s funny how quickly filming standards have changed. With this being said, however, The Witch looks truly stunning.
Closeup shots of characters look fantastic with the larger vertical aspect helping to frame characters perfectly. Forest scenes are imposing with the limited horizontal shot making the trees feel as though they are closing in on the characters. Night time scenes are claustrophobic and foreboding as the dimly lit characters are lost in the narrow blackness of the lens. It’s all very beautiful to look at.
Incredible Lighting and Set Design
Lighting is another noteworthy element of the movie’s incredible aesthetic. The Witch was filmed using, wherever possible, entirely natural light. This lends the picture a somewhat unique style that you don’t see particularly often in movies. Most sets tend to be over-lit, if anything, which can heavily detract from the scene. This is not the case here.
A grey hue covers everything and the bleakness of the sky perfectly reflects the desperate situation the family are in. Night time shots are almost crushingly black. This bleeds into the home so when you are in the house with the family you really feel how dark it is. The candles and fire are the only light and this really adds to the sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. The decision to use natural light was a brave and inspired choice that pays off perfectly.
Set design is something else that demands attention. The set comes across as thoroughly authentic. There is none of the terrible, almost plastic, looking houses that you often see in period movies. This is a set that could have been ripped out of the time period itself with a thatched roof farm house, hastily constructed barn, and pens for the animals put together with whatever material was available. Add to this pillows made from straw, accurate period clothing, and home made house decorations typical of the time and you have a movie that perfectly depicts the period. It is clear that hours of research and work have gone into achieving this and it is hard not to admire the effort. Evidently the pay off makes it worth the effort.
An Acting Tour de Force
Viewers from the UK will likely recognise a face or two from The Witch. Ralph Ineson has been acting in British drama series since the late 90s and Kate Dickie has been around since the 2000s. Both put on absolutely tremendous performances that stand out for their authenticity. They are both incredibly believable as pious English people living in a strange land and trying to survive. They really help the viewer to understand how difficult it must have been for people back then surviving against the odds while trying to live by the word of God.
The standout performance here, however, is Anya Taylor-Joy in her first credited acting roll. Obviously she has gone on to do tremendous things and is one of the most promising actors in the world right now. It is her performance here that opened the eyes of people in the industry and for good reason. She is entirely believable as Thomasin and perfectly encapsulates the turmoil of a young woman facing a number of horrific accusations while trying to help her family as much as possible. It’s a powerful performance and one that deserves a lot of praise considering Taylor-Joy’s lack of acting experience at the time.
Very Slow Paced
The Witch is an excellent movie but it is not perfect and a few things should be pointed out. First of all, it is very slow paced and I imagine many viewers will check out fairly early on. I am a fan of slow burn horror movies but, having bipolar disorder, there can be times when I struggle to apply full concentration. The first time we watched this, it failed to keep my attention and by half way through I had no clue what was going on and didn’t particularly care. This is likely my own fault and not that of the movie but there were a few things that played into it which I will explain in the next few paragraphs.
The Witch is in no rush to get anywhere and the scares comes in slowly and in unexpected places. If you are not paying attention to what is happening, the progression of the story will be lost and you will be left confused. It does not attempt to grip you with scares or big plot developments. Everything that happens is fairly subtle and keeping focus is a must as the plot will leave you behind.
An Awful Audio Mix
A big problem for me when it came to concentrating was the audio mix. It is one of the absolute worst I have heard in a modern horror movie. When we first watched we were attempting to do so at night. We lived in an apartment at the time and turning it up to a decent volume to hear the dialogue was impossible. The disparity between the volume of the voices and the volume of the music and sound effects is ridiculous.
If you don’t want to wake your neighbours you should probably grab some headphones to hear the conversations. It doesn’t help that Ralph Ineson’s thick Northern English accent and tendency to mumble make him almost impossible to understand at times. Even re-watching for this review, now in a detached house, and cranking the soundbar it was still difficult to hear a few bits of dialogue.
The Witch features a few child actors and they are fairly inconsistent. Harvey Scrimshaw, as Caleb, is tasked with a lot of talking and I felt his accent slipped a lot. His performance felt a little school drama production at times. I would put this down to direction more than his acting ability though. The twins were very odd. Mercy in particular shouts a lot and can be hard to understand. I actually found them to be one of the scarier parts of the film for some reason. They kind of creeped me out a bit. Jonas in his little outfit looks like something that would chase you around a house in a VR horror video game.
Is it Scary?
This is perhaps the biggest question of all regarding a horror movie. I think the answer, to be honest, is not particularly. I absolutely love The Witch but it doesn’t really offer up any major scares. There are a few scenes that will likely frighten a few viewers but the movie relies far more on tension than outright horror. The things the family experience are terrifying in and of themselves. The desolate area they live in and the forest next to it are extremely foreboding but the scares are minimal.
I think there are likely to be a group of people that would argue the point as to whether or not The Witch is actually horror. I think, in my opinion, it is many different things. It is a period drama, it’s a mystery, it’s a little bit of a thriller, and it is a little bit of a folk fairy tale. It is, however, above all of these, a horror movie. We have an ominous atmosphere, a group of victims, a clear antagonist, and a satisfying ending that acts as a full stop to the story. Sure, it is not a very scary horror, but how many horror movies are legitimately scary?
If you let yourself buy into the story being told here, you will likely find the scares. Indeed, many of them exist just in the situation the family have found themselves in. As I find myself pointing out often lately, some people are just not fans of movies like this. That is totally fine, we can all enjoy what we enjoy. That is the beauty of horror and the horror community has always been an accepting and understanding one. We need to keep that acceptance of people’s likes and dislikes alive. Fans of jump scare horror or horror with a lot of deaths and action may want to look elsewhere as that is just not what The Witch does. Fans of slow burn horror, definitely check The Witch out.
Is it a Knockout?
The Witch is a fantastic period folk horror movie that is well worth a look for anyone who enjoys slow burn stories. Featuring an excellent cast and a standout performance from the fantastic Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch spends a lot of time building a horrific story of poverty, grief, religious devotion, and an ominous presence in the woods.
Beautifully filmed with an unusual aspect ratio and a commitment to the use of natural light, The Witch stands out as much for its looks as it does for its story. Never in a hurry to get to its conclusion, this is a movie that demands attention and will reward viewers with a tremendously imposing atmosphere and a satisfying conclusion.
Some will likely argue that The Witch is not actually a horror movie and, in the traditional sense, it maybe isn't. While not being particularly scary, the atmosphere is tense and the themes at play are very fitting for the horror genre. If you are a fan of fast paced jump scare horror, you will likely want to give this a miss but for fans of thoughtful, slow burn horror, The Witch is a movie you need to check out.