‘The Witch’ is the best horror story Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote

I’ve ranted many a time on this very blog about my thoughts on the modern horror genre as a while. (You can find said bitching here.) The gist is: studios, filmmakers and even mass audiences en mass equate horror to a jump scare roughly every 5 to 7 minutes. To actually build tension would equate to a boring movie to many. Not to sound pretentious, but too few actually work at building up scares.

In other words, they do this…

…when they should try more of this…

I should stress though, this is just something I prefer. To each his or her own in terms of what you find scary…but I’m the one writing this so my opinion is the right one.

Something I neglected to get into (but have elsewhere) in that blog is that at the heart of any good horror movie, there needs to be a half-way decent story that would stand on its own two feed should the horror elements be erased. This could be said for ANY genre film but its crime committed time and time again by cash-in horror fodder.

The Witch is a story that harkens back to days of old…and I don’t mean old movies, I mean like stories from about 200 or 300 years ago. A story writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins, Henry James, Washington Irving, and the like would have told. Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in particular seems to have been a pretty big influence given the themes, mood and general direction of the story. In fact it’s so in line with those older stories that I’m quasi-shocked it’s not based anything specific.

To be brief. “Young Goodman Brown” is story about a young man leaves his wife Faith (subtle) and ventures off into the woods for an unknown errand and along the way he encounters some strange folks for lack of a better terms, some of which may or may not be witches. He awakes the next morning questioning whether the previous night was a dream or reality. Like many of Hawthorne’s work, it examines the hypocrisy of Puritan culture as Brown’s view of a community he once thought was idealistic is as corrupt and dirty as the rest of the world. Brown’s loss of faith in his wife…Faith is reflective of his loss in faith in his community and his religion. This movie is similarly about a pious family driven to the woods and have their faiths tested. Along the way, we get to the bottom of what aches at the heart of each of these characters hearts, what sins consume at them and whether their faith can survive in a reality hellbent on shattering it.

Before I start waxing smart about Gothic lit (I took one college class so pretty damn far from expert), let me direct you to me pretending to be smart about the subject in my Crimson Peak review.

Not only heavily influenced by the stories of the American gothics however, first-time writer/director Robert Eggers pulls from both early American folk stories and real life accounts, such as the hanging of Ann Glover and the possession of Elizabeth Knapp in the 17th Century. It’s a hodgepodge of truth, legend, heresy and what have you, complied by Eggers in one neat, little package. Speaking of 17th Century, the production design is breathtakingly intricate for what I assume must have been a very meager budget. Bravo to the costume and set designers for creating a Puritan pre-America that looks like it was ripped right off of a wood-carving.

Not everything is old-fashioned as it were as Eggers however pulls in modern horror troupes to create a movie unlike any I’ve seen before which should a pretty big indicator of what side of the positive/negative side this review will ultimately fall. Gather round, kiddies. There’s a Witch on the prowl and it needs reviewin’.

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The plot: 

“New England, 1630: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness, with five children. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another. ‘The Witch’ is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own fears and anxieties, leaving them prey for an inescapable evil.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Let’s just get this out of the way now. The Witch is not the scariest horror film you’ve ever seen but it just might be one of the best ones you’ve seen in a good long while. At least that is the case for me. Something I dislike about horror movies that are even the slightest bit of good tend to get OVERHYPED. Now, I understand why this happens. Horror movies largely suck (especially now) and any time one actually shows promise, the excitement is almost palpable. So let me lower your expectations: while I loved this movie, it didn’t utterly shatter my world and I don’t want you to think that it will shatter your’s either.

I expect to hear a lot of people argue that it wasn’t scary. The argument I foresee in my head relates to the film simply being “weird” or “boring” because it doesn’t spoon feed its audience by jingling proverbial keys over our heads by shocking us awake with loud noises. Now, once again, I understand this isn’t EVERYBODY’S cup of tea so if you don’t like slow burn films that are more…measured in how they scare you, there’s a good chance you won’t care for this movie. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not here to convince why I think this is better or even scary. There’s really no wrong way to take in a movie. I’m simply here to tell you why you should give it a chance.

In many ways it belongs in the same conversation as recent horror hits The Babadook and It Follows in that it does a wonderful job in instilling dread in the audience. Dread, as defined, is to anticipate with great apprehension or fear. ANTICIPATION. The fear of what comes next. Building tension so high that you NEED to see what happens but you’re afraid to. You cover your eyes, but you peak between your fingers. You hold your ears closed, but watch none-the-less.

The movie pulls this off through a number of ways, but I want to highlight two specifically: the cinematography and the score.

Jarin Blaschke’s camera work is so good and so precise that it’s hard to describe why it works so well. I particularly liked when he would just linger on the woods on the edge of the farm.it’s so dense, you can see one or two rows of trees before it’s just darkness. This primordial wilderness threatens the family physically and spiritually, and it’s given some great visual substance throughout the film.

Like the camera, the Mark Korven’s score is often measured but often uneasy. There’s always something eerie when the score kicks in, even when nothing particularly creepy is going on. Continuing the film’s strict ‘just as it was’ philosophy, the film’s score was composed using period instruments as well as a utterly creepy female choir that kicks in at some of the film’s spookiest moments. I couldn’t find any samples via YouTube but I highly recommend seeking it out through (legal) channels such as iTunes or Spotify…just do so with the lights on. 

All of this isn’t to say the movie isn’t scary in the common sense either. There are truly terrifying moments in this movie and more than enough graphic and creepy imagery to fill up your nightmare bank for the next year. Let’s just say if you’re freaked out by goats, rabbits, crows, twins, old ladies and the woods (like I am), you’re going to have more than one thing keeping you up at night for the next week or so.

Outside of the technical elements, I was particularly impressed with the younger actors. That isn’t to say our two adult leads are anything to slouch at. Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are superb; Inseon in particular seems destined to play the part of Puritan zealot with his well-worn features and weathered voice. It’s just that the younger cast members have a lot of heavy lifting to do given the subject material.

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Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the oldest of the family’s five children, who finds herself largely at the center of the witchy paranoia. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything before this but I expect great things. She is not the troupe one would expect in that she is actively “ahead” of everyone else and doesn’t believe in witches. She does her own fair share of accusing and pointing fingers before all is said and done. Instead, she’s an actual character. You know, with like faults and personality. She’s a young woman in a time in which it was pretty terrible being a woman. There’s a lot of weight in that role as not only the oldest child and a woman, unsure and unready for the world outside of her community, and she does a very good job at playing a child forced into growing up very quickly.

The same could be said of Harvey Scrimshaw’s Caleb, the second oldest. He’s on the cusp of puberty and beginning to have impure thoughts about his older sister (icky but a different time and just an all around terrible situation to be discovering your sexuality) and must do some serious growing up now that his family is out on their own. He instills a lot of subtle emotions of guilt and confusion over his burdening hormones to a character who could have been pretty annoying if written and acted by lesser talents. No spoilers, but something rather unfortunate happens to his character and one of his later scenes is one of the finer performances I’ve seen from a child actor recently. He’s playing a lot of types in a role that is -on the page- very simple.

And that goes for the movie as a whole really. It’s spinning a lot plates and it does so in way that almost seems misleadingly simple. It’s a movie that’s dense thematically but not overtly complicated. It’s also refreshingly simple, not tied to any existing canon besides that of its genre.

There’s a feminist reading regarding the repression of female sexuality and its power. You can look into the purely psychological facet of the story and the time and place in which it takes place; a time dictated by religious fanaticism and suspicion in the unknown ruled the hearts of the common folk and place in which death was just around every corner. You can even take the movie at face-value as a simple spooky campfire story about a witch terrorizing a family of pilgrims. It reminded a bit of the The Revenant, a critical darling I was more lukewarm on. That movie was also very simple in regards to story but rich in themes and the like. Where that movie waivers and this one excels however is that the former movie is about two-and-a-half hours. This one is a breezy one-and-a-half.  You get that discussion, but with more of an urgency and without the density of a movie that drags from time to time.

SPOILERS

BELOW I WILL BE TALKING ABOUT THE END OF THE FILM.

IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM AND DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED, SKIP TO THE PICTURE OF THE HAPPY GOAT.

THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE.

YOU ARE NOW LEGALLY NOT ALLOWED TO BE MAD IF YOU HAVE BEEN SPOILED.

I really want to get into the last act of the movie because A) it gets really crazy (in a good way) and B) it’s one of the best horror movie endings I’ve seen in maybe a decade. A lot of people in my screening where audibly frustrated by it but I loved it.

As a quick aside, please hide your displeasure with a movie AFTER the final credits. More often than not, audiences for horror movies can be the most utterly obnoxious out of any other type of film because some think they are comedians and “cooler” than the movie by anticipating the scares or recognizing the troupes. When I have contempt for a movie (like The Choice), I keep it to a whisper at the most out of respect for others that also paid to be there. I don’t treat a movie theater like a goddamn open mic night.

There wasn’t some cheap twist nor ambiguity as to what the exact situation. There are fucking witches out in the woods and there is a deal to be made with the fucking Devil.

For the record, I LOVE that the movie commits to the witch angle and Black Phillip being a form of the Devil. Eggers even throws in the book in which to sign and stripping down and dancing by firelight. With the loss of her entire family, Thomasin is ready to join her sisters in what I can presume is a prequel to Hocus Pocus. (Only half kidding, but those witches fed on the souls of children too…I don’t think they murdered babies, mashed them into goo and proceeded to rub said goo on their naked bodies and brooms for flight…BUT WE DIDN’T SEE THEM NOT DO THAT, DID WE?!)

I think it succeeds is that it doesn’t go over-the-top insane. Sure, it’s utterly bonkers but it’s played straight and that works for this movie. We don’t see a talking goat. We hear the goat speak in the dulcet, unsettling tones of seductive evil. I had a friend point out the talking goat in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell as a comparison.

That worked well for that movie which was strictly a horror comedy. Like I said, the last 10 or so minutes of this movie are INSANE but the film does such a strong job at building to that insanity with subtle pokes and prods throughout that it doesn’t betraying everything that came before. It doesn’t lead you down one route and do a complete 180 much the ending of The Last Exorcism that came out a few years ago with one of the WORST endings I have ever had the displeasure to see. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with an ambiguous ending, but quite often ambiguous endings come off as lazy or (once again) favor a surprise.

I’ve heard a little (stupid) hubbub about the movie endorsing the puritans for burning/hanging/drowning individuals accused of being witches as this movie presents witches as an actual threat.  Well here’s a (delayed) news flash for those people: Satan and witches weren’t simply “boogiemen” at this time in history. They were very real threats to the religious lot. Eggers’ movie reflects this threat. The movie is subtitled, “A New England Folktale,” and its just that. A story in which witches exist; a story passed down from generation to generation to scare those into following God’s word and also you know staying out of the goddamn woods. It’s by no accident (I assume) it takes place decades before the infamous Salem witch trials. It’s a story that could instill fear and mistrust in the hearts of the god-fearing, turing neighbor against neighbor and precursor to the mob violence that carries on to this day.

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END OF SPOILERS

So…would I recommend The Witch? Yes…tepidly because I just know in my heart of hearts this is a movie that is going to divide people. Accusations of it being boring are already out there, and they are not completely unfounded. Like any Gothic novel, the scares could be interpreted as antiquated in today’s fast paced jump scare world. This is a movie that works hard at earning its scares and some people take issue with that.

If there is ANYTHING I learned in American Gothic Fiction, it is incredibly important to differentiate between horror and terror. Terror is the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. Horror is the feeling of revulsion that occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling you get after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence. To put it simply, horror is being shocked or scared (what you feel during a jump scare or what happens when you see something that scares you like a clown or spider or what have you) and terror is being anxious about what may happen next. The two often work in unison but can be classified as to separate feelings as well. The Witch often dwells in the realm of terror. (Yes, I wrote horror story in the title but you once you see it you’ll understand there is more than enough horror to confirm my choice in wording.) I felt legitimately uncomfortable during this movie during its relatively short movie. I never felt truly at ease, and to me that is what makes a good scary movie. Something that makes you look over your shoulder; something that makes you fear to turn off the light.

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3 thoughts on “‘The Witch’ is the best horror story Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote

  1. Pingback: Sweet ’16: 25 of the best films from the worst year ever (that I actually saw) | Sharks with Laserbeams

  2. Pingback: ‘It Comes At Night’ finds the enveloping fear in nothingness | Sharks with Laserbeams

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