The Witch

March 6, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Over the last few years, films like “It Follows” and “The Babadook” have been expanding the boundaries of the Horror genre to great effect, and “The Witch” is a worthy addition to that collection. Set is 17th Century America, the story follows one family trying to eke out a living on the edge of a vast and daunting woods. The film is effused with a joyless atmosphere thanks to some brilliant, stark film-making that emphasizes the family’s aloneness with almost every shot. Lenses are used effectively to give the light a haunted, cold feel during the day and flickering candles add menace to the night shots. Likewise, the score is stark and discordant, ratcheting up anxiety effectively and then sometimes ceasing completely, allowing silence to build dis-ease and restlessness. This is a cleverly crafted film with an eye for realism. Director Robert Eggers was a production designer before tackling this, his first feature film, and it shows in all the little details: buildings, clothing, names and, especially, the dialogue feel absolutely period-real, all of which helps you get lost in the story. Eggers also shows a skill at getting strong performances from his cast. Rather than the sort of hamfisted, exaggerated terror one often sees in horror films, these characters were filled with a constant sense of generalized dread about everything (eg starving, displeasing God) that it gave the film emotional weight. In fact, this gets at how the film most effectively plays with the genre itself. Most often, films try to “scare” audiences by making them jump, but the startle-reflex is a cheap thrill; it doesn’t take much skill to trigger it. “The Witch” mostly forgoes this device in favor of creating a bone deep creepiness that pervades virtually every scene, even the most benign ones. I was chilled and disturbed several times by the film, as was the audience I was with and that is a much more satisfying kind of horror than most of what the genre has to offer. Horror films also love to trade in broad metaphors, none more common than “the wages of sin…” variety. As I have said before, 80s h0rror (filmed at the height of AIDS hysteria) was rife with warnings about the link between teen sex and death. This film seems to be playing with a similar sexual metaphor, with burgeoning adolescent sexuality as an undercurrent throughout the story. However, where I think the film drops the ball is in it’s bait and switch ending. What could have been a prescient metaphor of how patriarchal societies fear, stigmatize and attempt to control female sexuality, instead ended up feeling vaguely salacious and sexist. Eggers made a muddied phantasm of the last 10 minutes. What a shame. This film is so understated is so many ways, if only he had realized that some questions are better left unanswered.

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