The Witch: Terror Felt but Unseen, Unknown

The WitchIn modern cinema, audiences often rebuke films that leave nothing to the imagination, and yet, this is often exactly what they are asking for. The Witch is a slow burn horror film that is equal parts madness and supernatural and both gives too little and just enough to unsettle observers for far longer than its run time.

Premise: A family finds horror and a terrible fate alone in a Wood. Result: A brilliant, yet understated horror film that places tension in every crevice.

The Witch follows a devout family of Puritans in early established America, recently expelled from their Plantation Community for unclear reasons that appear to stem from the very devotion they hold dear. Father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and two horrid twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and infant Sam. They are even more radical in their love of God than others and their reckless reproach has estranged them in a world where life is difficult enough without the terror of solitary.

But expelled they become and settle in the countryside, alone beside a chilling, dark wood whose inhabitants are perpetually unseen but often felt. It is not long before horror strikes, with the disappearance of their youngest child, Sam, an infant whose fate with the Witch of the Wood is quite frightening for audiences. It is with this blow that the family at the center of this tale begin to unravel: the impending doom of winter, the poor harvest, desperation and solitary are enough but for the death of a child to create uncompromising calamity.

And so is their fate, an isolated madness that creeps from the shadow, part supernatural part psychological, these poor creatures are as suited to their environment as the goats and chickens they keep. The film is slow burn agony on the screen with tension rising steadily and a terror always looming in the corners of the screen just outside of view.

landscape-1440078746-the-witchUltimately the greatest triumph of the film is in duplication of an equally unnerving masterpiece years ago. Writer/director Robert Eggers manages to invoke Kubrick and his unforgettable The Shining, a tale that also perfectly balances the supernatural with the calamities of isolation and its erosion of the family unit. There are almost scene by scene, image by image parallels – even the witch’s cackle and frightening visage are undeniable pastiche. This remarkable sense of eerie and foreboding infuses the film and brilliantly unsettles.

The performances are consistently powerful and passionate. Each one capable of exhibiting the rage and agony of betrayal with the subtle, innocent confusion – like a helpless pup fallen into the icy, tumult of the river – that befalls any that must bear witness to the terrifying wonders in that wood.

Ultimately, The Witch plays more subtle than sensational and may disappoint some audiences that either expect more on-screen horror and gore or less left up to the imagination. In truth, neither belief is fair or accurate. The film certainly is no gore fest but chooses its imagery and frights with care, helping to balance the realism of the monstrosities that ensue. This adds to the terror, making it not only plausible, but somehow logical in a world as unknown as that in which these wayward travelers find themselves. It is entirely clear that the monsters are real – very, terrifyingly real – and it is in the masks of darkness that Eggers helps us see just enough to let our imaginations run wild.

In the end, The Witch is a slow burn terror that will fester; its true magic is in stunning cinematography, haunting visuals that reveal as much as they conceal, and traumatizing tension. The balance of the family discord and the very real supernatural danger is precise and may underwhelm some audiences that crave on-the-nose terror.

But what we have here is the definition of chilling; it is a tale told that forces our face into a disapproving frown, a gesture of unending discomfort, and most importantly, one we are largely unaware of. For that is the power of true terror: it waits and watches with us largely unaware.

Rating: 8 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak

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