A recent spate of great horror films like The Babadook and It Follows are films that not only transcend the horror genre but manage to break free from the restricting format of mainstream horror. They explore the lengths of what the horrifying may be, with refreshing new perspectives entwined with profound psychology while at the same time eschewing modern horror tropes and formulas. These are films that should be the representative art-force behind horror, a genre too often discredited by splatter and cheap jumpscares.
Horror attracts all sorts of people because of its genre expectancy and, despite the artistic integrity of the aforementioned films, there’s a rift between critics and so-called “fans” of horror, the lowest common denominator of viewers failing to see the greatness in such. They scan for those easy scares while their brains gloss over anything that appears like intellect, dumping it into unrecoverable recesses of the subconscious.
What exactly are they looking for? Have they legitimately been scared in the theater in the last decade? Or have these audiences been so desensitized to the horrific, leaving the horror genre to decay? Is it always about the corporeal and not the mind, or atmosphere or tone?
Every now and then a really great one comes around, and such is the case in Robert Eggers directorial debut, The Witch. Here’s a film that proves the genre is far from done, taking the voice and vision of one director to craft something powerful and intuitive like what’s on display here.
Set to the Puritan clamp of 17th century New England, a family is banished from their pious community due to a disagreement of belief which forces them to the fringes of society. In their remote abode at the edge of a dark forest, the family finds a comfort in their solitude, keeping themselves busy with work and the word of God.
William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are the parents of five children: their newborn Samuel, fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), a coming-of-age Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), growing into her role as a woman. On a day like any other Thomasin plays an innocent game of peekaboo with baby Samuel that results in his unexplained disappearance. I should say that the circumstances are mysterious to the family; the audience is shown the fate of poor Samuel in one of the film’s first eerie and truly unsettling moments as it ends in his death by a witch in a bloody ritual.
Katherine weeps for days and days, praying for the unbaptized soul of Samuel and blaming Thomasin for his disappearance. In this moment of despair Caleb asks whether it’s fair that an unbaptized baby is unjustifiably damned to hell. The Witch questions many of these Christian beliefs and presents them as restricting with the film’s time-period alluding to the religious disconnect between the modern and scripture – questioning outdated modes of thought.
The disappearance of Samuel is the film’s emotional crux exploring the dynamics of a family trying to understand the world around them in tandem with their religious beliefs. To make matters worse, Thomasin is transitioning into womanhood; she’s in that awkward phase where she’s fetishized for her youth yet reviled for it as well; the whore and the madonna. Her brother Caleb begins to coyly notice her breasts, while her mother seeks to get rid of her to another family and blames her for anything she can. Matters don’t get better for Thomasin when she jokingly scares the twins into believing she is the witch responsible for Samuel’s disappearance. This jest doesn’t go as planned and Thomasin’s faith in God goes under heavy scrutiny.
The film’s religious focus makes the connection between the restricting nature of religion and how it affects and restrains the woman. The story confines its women to the home, and when Thomasin is out, only bad things happen – like the disappearance of Samuel. The men share moments of limited freedom and camaraderie as they explore the nearby forest, but they’re still circumscribed by the laws of God. The film argues that, whatever lay out in the forest, it may be a better alternative to the life these characters live.
The Witch may be the best horror film of the last 20 years, perhaps even longer. Beautifully shot and accompanied by an unsettling amalgam of music and sounds, it’s a visual and aural nightmare revealing layers of complex narrative that casual audiences may miss. It’s eerie use of sound, atmospheric cinematography, and tight and confining framing offer terrifying and unsettling moments as well as communicating the film’s imprisoning religious overtones. If there was ever a horror film in this day and age that deserves award season recognition, this one is it.