The Witch, 2015.
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson.
A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
Much to the chagrin of its fans, the horror genre is often incorrectly dismissed by the wider critical market as little more than ‘trashy movies low on substance’. However there is usually one or two movies per year that penetrate the crusty exterior of those who write for Variety and Roger Ebert, and gain praise from snooty film snobs. In 2014 it was Jennifer Kent’s fabulous The Babadook, in 2015 it was the equally tremendous It Follows, and this year it has been Robert Egger’s debut The Witch, a 1600s period drama about a New England family torn apart by evil forces. Perhaps it’s the setting that swayed pretentious critics into loving Egger’s film, because it’s difficult to decipher what else it could have been.
The Witch sees a family – made up of father William, mother Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas and newborn Samuel – cast out of their Puritan town and set up a farm just outside of a large forest. When Samuel is taken by the titular Witch while under the watch of Thomasin, the family begin to fall to pieces, with various parties taking Samuel’s disappearance in a variety of different ways. Katherine begins to pray heavily while Mercy and Jonas suspect their older sister of witchcraft, slowly turning each member against each other.
There’s no denying that The Witch is a beautifully shot movie and Eggers has already shown a maturity in his direction that a lot of first-time directors lack. He brilliantly captures the grey and bland nature of the 1600s, from the simple costumes to the dreary exteriors that surround the family’s life, and he also gets some very good performances out of his cast – some of which is made up by inexperienced talent. But, as seen with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, there is only so far good visuals can get you before you realise there is little underneath.
Part of The Witch’s issues is that it works on a slowly building tension and horror throughout the movie but fails to achieve either. Each scene just moves into the next with very little impact, and even the full-out horror sequences that aim to scare carry little weight. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that The Witch’s home entertainment release falls shortly after the theatrical release of James Wan’s vastly superior The Conjuring 2, as Eggers’ attempts at horror fall spectacularly flat when the two are put side-by-side. But even without the comparison, The Witch simply isn’t scary. It’s not tense either. It’s just sort of… there.
The Witch just feels very televisual. This could be down to its modest $3 million budget, but that shouldn’t account for everything. Many other directors have done so much more with much less, and The Witch shouldn’t feel this much like a glorified BBC2 costume drama that would air on a Sunday night. Undoubtedly the film features some good performances from Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and a sublime Anna Taylor-Joy (easily the star of the show), but it suffers at script level. Eggers just doesn’t have enough in the tank to fill its standard 92 minute run-time. Scenes that should have been used to build tension and character – or delve further into its myriad of under-developed subtext – are instead just filled with dull, mumble-y dialogue that doesn’t affect the plot. By the time the rather well-crafted conclusion comes along, it really matters for naught.
Unlike The Babadook or It Follows, Robert Eggers’ The Witch just doesn’t match up to the critical expectation set. But even ignoring its unwarranted hype, it’s a rather bland affair with very little in the way of horror, tension or thrills. The film does have some subtext to be discussed and Eggers should be applauded for his efforts, but it never matches up to the previously mentioned much better movies. Its televisual nature lets down some pretty good performances, and its good climax is ruined by all the boring build-up. The Witch is fine. It’s nothing more than fine and, actually, quite missable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.