Monday, February 22, 2016

The Witch Review

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"

Back in 1999, I recall seeing The Blair Witch Project and shortly after witnessing it I went away with my family to our family cabin immersed in the deep woods of northern Wisconsin. The environment I would have normally considered to be peaceful instead felt alive as I went near it. Not only alive, but evil. I could hear movement in every direction, as if something was lurking in the shadows. I would stare into the darkness and something sinister would stare back. The week was uneventful, but I never felt comfortable.

Seventeen years later and on the very same day I witnessed the new film The Witch, I get a text from my mother talking about that cabin and the land that surrounds it. It has been many years since I have been there, over a decade since the property was sold. I was transported back to the way the wind whipped through the trees, the way you could practically feel the crunch of the leaves as someone or something walked on them nearby. It was like I could hear the movement all over again, even from the comfort of my suburban home. I am staring into the darkness again. Something sinister is staring back.

I am not comfortable.

The Blair Witch Project was so real to people that part of the allure of the film upon its release was the notion that it may have actually been found footage. This is before the sub-genre had become so widespread to the point of being numb to the technique, when you could actually sell an audience on the realism of a hand held camera and raw, low budget filmmaking. I try to not let the found footage flood that I have since drowned in over the years bother me and remember a time when I, too, was horrified by just how real that film felt. When the terror dripped down onto me like the tears of Heather Donahue. I was aware from the beginning that the movie was fiction, but I knew people who truly were convinced that what they were seeing was fact. 

I'm not comparing the two films, they are completely different in style and absolutely unrelated in substance. I am merely reminded so deeply and profoundly of the way I felt all those years ago. The Witch takes place in the 1600's and at the very start of the film we see a family of Puritans that are being banished from their community. They must pack their things and live their lives away from the other settlers, outside the safety of the erected walls. With their devout faith and love for each other, they start life anew on their own, a home and a farm surrounded by the eerie calm of the woods. 

The craziest thing about the film is that it shouldn't feel so real. Not on paper at least. A story taking place 400 years ago involving the supernatural and yet I was affected by the realism in a way I never could have expected. The aspect ratio of The Witch is 1.66:1, which makes the image slightly more boxed in than full widescreen and the result is just a bit more claustrophobic, a bit more intimate. The imagery and the atmosphere created by director Robert Eggers is already designed to make you feel a little pressure in your chest and quite literally tightening up the frame only enhances the effect. The performances are incredible and their execution of Old English dialogue feels so spot on, and the lighting and musical score work together to fill every inch of your body with dread and unnerve the audience until we can't take anymore. The string instruments slice through our ears with a high pitch shrill and the flickering light of the candles is enough to make what we are seeing feel wrong, like we are flies on their wall and we shouldn't be allowed into their world. I could barely blink because every frame carried so much attention to detail with it, and I would imagine that revisits will be vastly rewarding and only enhance the experience, which is hard to believe because the first time through I am left believing The Witch is one of the finest horror films in a long, long time.

I have a complicated, sometimes ugly relationship with religion and my brief experience dealing with Catholicism first hand is something that lingers with me years later. I was blown away by the way The Witch transcended being merely a "scary movie" and served as an exploration into the history of religion and the obsessive dedication from those leading a life driven by it. This film is darker than dark, bleaker than bleak, and you can practically feel Satan's breath on every frame, even the moments that are seemingly inconsequential, though the brilliance of The Witch is that nothing is. Every shot, every camera angle, every word spoken and everything not said but felt is essential. This picture, a horror film released in the middle of February, is an absolutely astonishing masterpiece that feels destined for classic status.

I can't stop thinking about the way pure evil hangs over every second of The Witch. The way it preys on the fears and weaknesses or each member of the family makes my soul ache. Robert Eggers hasn't merely arrived with this shockingly ingenious debut film, he has kicked the door in and announced himself as the ultimate hope for taking the horror genre in new, jaw dropping ways that feel especially invigorating given the current landscape of what audiences have come to expect. Another Saw sequel or a lazy Purge effort. A beat up basket full of tropes that are sprinkled upon so many films each year, resulting in a constant stream of recycled and uninspired storytelling. The Witch knows how to build tension by being terrifyingly patient and wait for just the right moment to break you, how to cast a spell on you and make you wonder about the motivations of God or the overwhelming power of the Devil.

The shadows of the trees dance ever so gently across the windows tonight, and while I can't look out at the density of those woods I used to visit, I can still picture the never ending darkness and hear the piercing sound of silence being shattered by one branch breaking in the distance. I see nothing but at the same time, everything. Something is out there, watching. A chill flutters down my spine. I am not comfortable. 

The Witch is a meticulously crafted work of art, like an intoxicating blend of the themes of a Bergman classic through the lens of Tarkovsky delivering horrors like those Kubrick unleashed in The Shining. Seriously, it's that good. 

It's fucking delicious, and I want to live deliciously. 



  1. Wow, was not expecting a perfect score. I just saw this film this morning and I will say that I'm impressed. However, I would only give it a 3 1/2 out of 5. I totally agree with you on the atmosphere and how this film made you feel. Most of the film I was shocked at how unsettled I was. Another thing I thought they did so well was the forest. In fairy tales they always describe the forest as mysterious, dark, and sinister, but you never see that in today's media. It's always happy and once in a while Leo will get mauled by a bear. However, this film made me feel like I was watching those fairy tales about the sinister dark wood.

    The thing I found absolutely terrifying was just how quick this family was throwing each other under the bus. I feel so bad for the Dad because he was themost level headed one in the whole film only to die that way. I believed every second that they were accusing each other of witchcraft, and how religion back then was so powerful scares me to my core. I mean, for most of the movie the mother was absolutely terrible to her daughter!

    For kid actors, and having the movie focus mostly on them, I thought they did a terrific job. The little boy surprised me the most. He was trying to be the man of the house while also studying how his father acts, but at the same time he was his own person. Whenever something he didn't like happen he always stood up for his family (Dad, sister), and the fear they got out of him when he was meeting the witch was astounding. Only for him to top it when he's having his possessed scene. Okay, I just convinced myself to rate this a 4/5 now. Like, really, this boy has so many dimensions to him that I was absolutely enthralled. The fact that this is his second movie is encredible and I think he's an actor to watch out for when he grows up.

    The only thing I really didn't like about the film were the last 5 minutes, and everything that told you this really is supernatural. I think it would have been a whole lot scarier if the witch didn't regenerate and was just some crazy nut living in the woods, that the possession was really just the kid on too many drugs provided from said crazy lady, and the real horror was that religion (what binds family) is the undoing of this one. Damnit!! I just convinced myself that this is 5/5 material. No, I take that back. 4.5/5. I absolutely cannot accept that ending, I think the film should have ended when Thomison put her head down inside the house. The last 5 minutes were just too much.

    1. Haha I loved that you writing it all out convinced you to appreciate it more Cody, that's awesome. I have done the same thing so I get it.

      I had no problem with the ending, I actually sort of appreciated the fact that Eggers made no bones about it, that this was a supernatural film and that what you see is what you get but there is also still so much going on beyond that in regards to religion and their family dynamic.

      Regardless, I am so glad you loved it as much as you did Cody. This film has gotten SO MUCH HATE and I cannot figure out what. I guess it's just expectations of what horror is, because I find The Witch to be so much more horrific and terrifying than any of the typical stuff put out these days.

    2. I think the horror genre is just plagued by cheesy over the top films such as Sharknado and Friday the 13th. I believe that the first Friday 13th is one of the best horror films, but they really degrade after that into a "Yeah kill him!" And that's what people go for, shocking and overly bloody. Unfortunately, I think that's what people associate with adult horror even though horror when we were kids was much more in the scary vein.

      I think something similar happened with the Babadook either last year or a few years ago (whenever it came out). Critics loved it, but fans were confused by it. That and jump scares. Holy shit are jump scares overused so often. And lastly, I believe the horror genre fans are mostly teens, which gravitate toward slasher films and thus associate horror with slasher. Because of this, I think a slow character/atmosphere driven movie like The Witch seems slow and boring to them. I just don't think people realize that there are different genres of horror. I'd say The Witch is psychological/atmospheric, whereas the most popular horror films are slashers i.e Nightmare on Elm St and Friday the 13th. But we also have comedy horror like my favorite Dale and Tucker vs Evil, which puts all the horror slasher cliches and turns them all around in a fantastic show of event that will have you rolling in laughter. And yet not many people have heard of it. But the biggest problem is that people like fast things now, and The Witch does have a slow pace which not many people will appreciate.

    3. Funny that I love The Babadook too, so yeah, you can tell which style of horror I tend to fall for.

      I agree completely though, with everything you said.

      Oh, and I really enjoyed Tucker and Dale as well haha. A funny, funny film.

  2. Yours is the second review I've read on this film, both very positive. I'm looking forward to this one. I am a huge Blair Witch fan, I watch it every year on Halloween night. Great post!

    1. I hope you love it Senczyszak. It's easily the best film so far this year for me, which I know doesn't seem like much given that it's only April and I have seen only 17 thus far, but it is a lock for a top 10 come early next year. It's that good.

      Your experience will depend entirely on expectations. It just will not appease anyone looking for jump scares or gore. It's a build up of dread and uneasiness for 90 minutes using cinematography and music and lighting that had me feel all sort of uncomfortable throughout.

  3. Definitely have to watch this - putting it on my movies list! I too loved loved loved Blair Witch but you're right - part of it was the novelty of the realism film style - new at the time. What I love most in a horror film is atmosphere and this film sounds loaded with it. Thanks for reviewing this!

    1. Oh for sure, if you are looking for atmosphere that builds dread and sets a tone, you have come to the right place with The Witch. Thanks for reading and the kind words, appreciate it!