The critic endorsements that decorate the trailer for The Witch would have us believe that this film, written and directed by Robert Eggers, would scare the pants off us. “One of the most genuinely unnerving horror films in recent memory,” says one. “… will make your blood run cold,” cautions another. That’s verbal candy for the horror aficionado.
For months, I anticipated the jitters that films like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2002), and Paranormal Activity (2007) heaped upon me.
There was, however, a bit of trepidation about that preview: the excerpts that accompanied those tasty quotes didn’t show anything especially groundbreaking. That observation turned out to be telling.
As The Witch progressed, I kept asking myself, “When’s this going to start getting frightening?” Sadly, at some point, I realised it just wasn’t going to happen. The Witch fails to deliver as a horror film. Moreover, those few scenes that led to its (mis)categorization as a horror are clichés, some of which are laughable.
The film does offer strong acting, period authenticity, and cinematography that reflects the self-suppression and bleakness that characterized Puritan New England. But that’s not why I came to see this film. I came because I wanted to poop my pants in fear.
A Banished Family Falling Apart
William, Katherine, and their five children get banished from their plantation for religious differences, then set out to live on their own. “We will conquer this wilderness,” says William (played by Ralph Ineson, whose voice is as gritty as a Puritan wardrobe). “It will not consume us.”
Then baby Sam’s disappearance triggers intensifying familial strife, the brunt of which gets directed toward oldest child Thomasin. She’s accused of being a witch by supremely annoying toddler twins Jonas and Mercy. Mother Katherine accuses her of stealing an heirloom. Characters argue, then pray. They chastise each other, then go into the woods. They point fingers, then berate themselves.
Underpinning and fueling all of this is the threat of a witch (or witches) that inhabit the forest. Ee hee hee hee!
A Sheep in Goat’s Clothing
If you’re into period pieces about one of the grimmest eras in American history, then you’ll have a blast… maybe that’s not the right word. The Witch captures the harshness of the time, the perils of religious extremism, and the subjugation of devotees (especially women). The film’s focus on authenticity leads to the dialogue’s heavy accents and unfamiliar diction – Ineson’s gravelly voice doesn’t help – that made it a bit difficult for a (American) Midwesterner like me to understand.
Again, achieving historical accuracy wasn’t the film’s conveyed purpose; generating fear was. Thus, The Witch is a historical drama touted as a horror even though there are only a couple somewhat frightening scenes slapped onto it. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the film is the discordant, high-pitched chorus that accompanies views of the forest’s edge.
Not All That Doesn’t Glitter…
So where’s all this critical acclaim coming from? Clearly the endless onslaught of one-dimensional action films irks critics, but have they become so jaded that for them, anything with extended shots, sparse sets, and economy of movement warrants a triumph?
Last year, they got it right for It Follows, an understated film that was conceptually innovative and did provoke fear. That film offered a brilliant ending with thematically sensitive camerawork and an alarmingly abrupt final cut. Conversely, the concluding scene of The Witch is silly. Plus, I’ve seen that. I’ve read that.
Maybe the critics believe The Witch makes some statement about the oppression of women. I don’t care. It didn’t entertain me enough to put thought into that theme. I wanted a horror film and they lied to me. The oppression of women isn’t frightening. It just sucks.
Perhaps one filmgoer’s parting comment best encapsulates the typical person’s response to The Witch: “That wasn’t really frightening. Just depressing.”
Don’t be fooled by the critics’ assertions of a “slow build”. A slow build to what? I was looking for a skyscraper; what I got was a Lego block. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***