I find a lot of modern horror problematic. The Blumhouse horror production machine churns out a lot of predictable “quiet-quiet-bang” fare but it has increased the profile of the genre, made producers see it not just as a low-budget way of making a few bucks but as capable of being block-busters (The Conjuring has grossed over $320 million). And on the tale of that multiplex headlining success comes smaller, more thoughtful movies. Last year saw It Follows and The Falling achieve great critical success with their slightly skewed takes on genre tropes.
This year we have The Witch (or The VVitch: A New England Folktale if we follow the poster), a painterly folk-horror that eschews jump-scares for long, awkward takes and a sense of creeping unease.
Beginning with the expulsion of a family from a Puritan colony in 17th Century England the plot follows William and Katherine and their children – teenaged Thomasin, Caleb, young twins Mercy and Jonas and baby Samuel – as they try to live on the edge of the woods outside the protection of the plantation.
The Witch is simultaneously old-fashioned and incredibly modern. Old-fashioned in the sense that it does away with The Crucible idea of witchcraft as mass-hysteria or ways of punishing the Other in close communities. These are not misunderstood, loveable nature worshipping Wiccans. The witchcraft at play here is dark and evil. It is the witchcraft of superstitious villagers in Hammer horror films, or the medieval set movies of Ingmar Bergman. In fact there is a strong Scandinavian influence as many scenes seem to echo Haxan, the silent Danish film about the history of witchcraft.
The film is also very modern in that, like all great horror movies, it has an awful lot going on under the surface. We see the fear of female sexuality as the men in the family react with fear and confusion, we see good old-fashioned Patriarchy in play as William’s pigheadedness leads his family towards ruin, we see the fear of the wild and untamed, but also the wonder and attractiveness of surrendering to chaos. The interactions between the members of the family are as terrifying as the supernatural forces, with the petty squabbling having real consequences later on.
There are no real special effects, no obvious CGI, just the slow march towards terror. The cinematography is exceptional, at times it looks like a Bruegel painting, all muddy browns and firelight flickers. The movie was also shot in 1:66 aspect ratio to give every scene a sense of height, and the framing is done mostly with the action centre frame (rather than on “thirds” as most movies are shot) which gives a sense of distance between the characters.
Closer to an old fashioned fairy-tale than a modern horror movie The Witch is a movie to be experienced. It is a slow burner, an exquisite exercise in alienation. And it has one very scary goat.
GS Rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus