Despite the title, the true horror of The Witch is less about eldritch magic and more about the mania that comes with obsession and isolation. In the early portion of the 17th century, America was a new land that was removed from the rest of the world. The people who came here left all that was familiar in hopes of finding something new and the family featured in the Witch loosely becomes an allegory for those first settlers.
Before the first frame of footage, The Witch opens with a slow building hum of strings against a black screen as if to remind you that you’re in for a stress filled ride. Wasting no time, the first scene establishes the entire premise: William and his family choose banishment in the wilderness over conforming to what he believes are “lax” beliefs in the Puritanical village. The family moves into the unknown, setting up their own homestead. As seen in the trailers, all seems all right until the mysterious disappearance of baby Samuel. The loss of the baby soon sets of a series of increasingly disturbing events that tears the family apart.
If I were to sum up The Witch in two words, it would be “bleak fear.” I consider myself somewhat of a horror aficionado, but this film was something unto itself entirely. The closest comparison to this type of terror would maybe be The Shining and, even then, The Shining seemed far less austere. Normally, I would describe something like The Witch as a slow burn but from the moment the lights went down, the low hum of dread was present.
Maybe an even more accurate comparison would be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Much like The Witch, the horror of Young Goodman Brown isn’t set around violence but paranoia and fear. Some audiences that want something in the vein of slasher horror will be a letdown. For those seeking something cerebral and supernatural, The Witch will not disappoint with its approach to period piece horror.
Everything about this movie feels dim and dire in a way that only enhances the story. I was surprised when it opened and it wasn’t even full widescreen, making the characters feel even more small and remote on screen. The colors are all very low contrast and desaturated, making The Witch look and feel like a fading nightmare and a nightmare is maybe the best description of what this plays out to be. The horror never comes from jump-scares or shock at the sight of blood, but from an unshakeable feeling of, “I shouldn’t be here.” When I compare this movie to a nightmare, I don’t mean in a sense of being scared of a monster under the bed, but in the sense of being horrified when you’re unable to scream because there’s a monster under the bed.
Much like the monster under the bed, the evil of the movie rarely shows itself but is ever-present. Without delving into spoiler territory, the titular witch doesn’t fall into the preferred form of wands and capes and pointy hats. Instead, we’re given the historical belief of a witch: a twisted, gnarled old crone hidden in a forest. The evils associated with which don’t manifest themselves in wispy plumes of sparkling light or crystal balls, but simply in the madness that begins to take the family or in the very few animals that appear on screen.
The Witch is a thoroughly researched movie, taking direct language from historical records and folk tales of the 17th century. The characters speak in the appropriate era of British English having arrived in America only a few years prior from England. Because of this attention to detail, everything begins to feel immersive. Growing up, my parents took me to Colonial Williamsburg multiple times a year for easily a decade exposing me to the history of the early nation. It all seemed very safe and modern, but The Witch is the first time the difficulty and fear of those first settlers has ever hit me in any real way. For me, the reality of what some of our founders went through became very real and, while I believe very differently, I began to understand how an intensely devout people could be driven to fear.
The history of witchcraft in America, and really the rest of the Western world, is ultimately a tragic tale. Men, women and children were tortured and murdered over village squabbles or because of a lack of understanding of mental health (a great film to watch for this is Häxan, a Swedish-Danish pseudo-documentary from the 1920’s)**. Stories like The Crucible highlight the anxiety that took over New England and led to such events as the Salem Witch trials. The Witch, however, only gives a nod to the interpretation of witchcraft in these stories. I assure you its not a spoiler when I tell you the evil in The Witch isn’t fear run amok or religious zealotry, its very real and constantly looming.
The Witch is not for everyone. Despite the R rating, I don’t mean “not for everyone” because of adult content; I mean it because this movie is heavy. It trudges through knee-deep dread that continues into madness until the last scene and even then, there are questions left unanswered. The Witch won’t give your nightmares the night after seeing it; instead, it will be in the back of your mind while you’re awake.
The Witch is in theaters now. Banner image and trailer are from materials provided by A24
**Häxan is available on Youtube restored (I believe in the public domain due to its age) with English dubbing, but its mildly NSFW. It was a silent film which tackled some surprisingly progressive issues for the time. Despite the time, it could be a bit creepy to some even though the dated effects and attempts at horror are tame, if not laughable, by today’s standards.
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