I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to go back to Algonquin Park.
In using the popular Provincial park as a stand-in for 17th Century New England, the team behind The Witch may have ruined the great outdoors for me. I’m being hyperbolic, but in staging their bottomless dread-pit of a film in one of Ontario’s most pristine natural locations, Director Robert Eggers and crew have succeeded in stoking the embers of distrust for wildlife that already exist in me.
Following a Puritan family through banishment from their colony to their attempt to establish a homestead of their own, The Witch is an exercise in isolation, religious zealotry, and slow-burning terror that descends upon the audience with an uncomfortable patience. Increasingly, as the film drew to its terrifically satisfying conclusion, I felt as though someone was sitting upon my chest.
The film outdoes itself in creating its world and establishing a sense of authenticity to its characters and events. The characters speak in period-accurate formal English, communicated through performances that exceed expectations from a “genre film”. These characters believe in what they are doing, and they believe in their God. As they become less sure of what is true and as they become more incredulous to the events unfolding around them, their confusion and terror is impressed upon the audience.
The Witch is a beautiful film. The camerawork is intelligently crafted to allow the natural landscape to do the talking. It appears that a great deal of natural light was used during shooting, and the resultant shadows seem to make the decisions about what we’re permitted to see – and what we aren’t. The discordant score, full of screeching, droning, swelling strings, brings to mind the brilliant score from There Will Be Blood. Given that the two films share a similar setting and some common themes, this feels appropriate. Although not entirely cut from the same cloth, like There Will Be Blood, The Witch leaves its audience with plenty to think about – and plenty to be upset about.
Having read about the response to this film – the backlash that ensued amongst “real horror fans” – I had been anxious to see it in order to see what all of the fuss was about. It strikes me that there are certainly different kinds of scary movie, and that one might prefer a certain style of horror film to another. I could completely understand The Witch not being everyone’s cup of tea, and this is evidenced in the disparity between the critic’s score and the audience score on the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page. That being said, to make the claim that The Witch “isn’t even a horror film” seems completely laughable to me. This movie is scary as shit. I was squirming in my seat for much of the film and was left feeling anxious and uncomfortable while thinking about it for hours afterward. While The Witch doesn’t traffic in jump-scares, gore or the titillating execution of nubile young women, it has scares in spades. The dreadful moments of The Witch crawl into you and metastasize, achieving a cumulative fright that out-does any horror film I’ve seen in ages. I also can’t remember the last time that I watched a horror film and felt compelled to work through it post-viewing, trying to unpack the themes and symbolism. This is not a thoughtless film.
Which is probably why, upon the film’s conclusion, one loudmouth at the screening that I attended (at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas… avoid that place…) shouted “Oh, come on!” Presumably, this gentleman considered himself a “true horror fan”, and as such needed to make his disapproval known. I’m going to unfairly generalize and lump that sort of guy in with folks that make statements like “girls can’t really be gamers” and “it’s okay that Phil Anselmo from Pantera is a racist”. Because I can.
Go see The Witch.