Aug 11, 2019

THE WITCH (2016)

I’m reticent to call The Witch a horror film, even though it utterly is. Because doing so would call forth images of how the current horror film has come to look: lazy remakes of classic titles, CGI monsters, buckets of blood, or even old-school classy approaches that avoid cheap tricks, but which at least provide a visceral jolt to the audience every so often to remind them that they are, indeed, watching a horror film.

The Witch isn’t interested in doing any of this. It very much wants to get under the audience’s skin and unnerve them in ways they aren’t used to, but its approach is tremendously different from the current crop of fright flicks at the theater. It’s not a spoiler to say that this isn’t a case of “Is there a witch, or is it all in the heads of this family recently excommunicated from their former home?” There is a very real and tangible threat. It exists among this displaced, God-fearing family, looming over their new patchwork home in the woods like the night sky. Quick and hazy sightings of the force haunting them, rarely glimpsed but ever changing, heighten its malignancy. Like another witchy horror flick—The Blair Witch Project—the thing going bump in the night is never made a primary on-screen force. It’s not hiding behind closet doors or hovering in the background of a mirror’s reflection. Its existence is felt in every frame, even if its visage is hardly sighted—a masterful accomplishment for any filmmaker, but especially for one making his directorial debut.

Horror films are easy to construct, but difficult to render effectively. It’s easy to scare the audience, but difficult to earn those scares through classy and clever execution. And it’s tremendously difficult to establish dread from the very first frame. So few horror films know how to accomplish this. We can throw out The Shining as an example, and even more recently, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. If the inescapable feeling of dread permeates from the onset, before a single horrific incident has occurred, that’s not just rare, but nearly unheard of. Filmmakers don’t know how to do it, so they open their film with a kill, and end it with a monster literally screaming into the camera. And in between: heads fly off, or ghostly faces drip. It’s tiring, and it’s cliché, and it’s boring, and The Witch is the antithesis to all of that.

Like The Blair Witch Project, The Witch is destined for a viewers’ revolt. In fact, it’s already here. “Overhyped.” “Overrated.” The dreaded IMDB bomb: “Worst movie EVAR.” Maybe The Witch should have remained a quiet title, released to VOD and then later to home video, but A24 Films boldly called the bluff of horror fans demanding smart and original material, rolling out the film in their widest release so far. And they get immense credit for having such faith in writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut. But The Witch is not a Friday night “I’m bored, let’s go to the movies” kind of film. It’s not ideal drive-in fodder (yes, they still exist). It’s not a party film like The Evil Dead. If there were ever any film worthy of closing the drapes, turning off the lights, and immersing in the environment of a horror film, The Witch is it. To experience it any other way is to rob yourself of an honestly unsettling experience.

The Witch's impressive sound design adds to that experience. A film that relies on utter silence, complemented by a chilling musical score by Mark Korven, The Witch makes great use of environmental ambiance, filling in those long stretches of silence, though a combination of textbook-authentic dialogue matched with actor Ralph Ineson's baritone voice and accent may have you leaping for the subtitles. Of all the horror films to watch with at least an average home theater surround sound, The Witch is a prime candidate.

If you have not yet taken The Witch plunge, please do so. But before you do, watch it with a mindset that’s different from what the film’s marketing has enforced. Don’t think of it as a horror film, but as a family drama that just so happens to contain horror elements. Sit down with it knowing that its eerie events are going to unfold at a slow pace, that the antagonist will be constantly felt but not seen, and that it will provide no easy answers. But ideally, sit down with it knowing that while the shadowy thing in the dark is a dangerous and terrifying threat…it’s not the only one.

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