2016.78: The Witch (Amazon VOD)
The Witch is a superior horror film but also a divisive one. There are a few jumpy scares, little gore- its not THAT kind of horror film. Instead its really more about conveying an ever-deepening sense of dread. Its a beautifully-shot film dripping with mood and atmosphere and slowly rising terror, but the slow pace, and lack of defined ‘evil’ (or even ‘good’) seems to have alienated many. Modern audiences don’t seem to handle ambiguity or invitation to interpretation very well. For myself, well, I absolutely adored it, and was then quite dumbfounded to learn of so many negative opinions of the film, so much so I wondered if I had seen the same film. Of course I had- indeed the very same things I loved about the film, the archaic old English being spoken, the attitudes and behaviour of characters of their own time, the slow pace, the sense of unsettling mood and the utterly unexplained horror that befalls the characters, all the things I loved, were the same things that detractors hated in their comments/reviews. Shockingly, some people even walked out of screenings during the films cinema release.
Dubbed A New England Folk Tale, according to the title screen at the start of the film, it tells the story of a 17th-Century puritanical English family who have moved to the New World. Banished from their settlement due to some undefined dispute with the Church Elders, the family set out into the unexplored, untamed wilderness and build a homestead and farm near some wild woods. Several months after settling there, the youngest child -scarcely a baby- is mysteriously taken by some vague supernatural figure (‘the Witch’ of the title) and suffers some awful end in a bloody rite.
The family, ignorant of the supernatural presence looming in the depths of the nearby woods, simply think the infant has been snatched by a wolf and are consumed with guilt as if this tragedy has been brought about by Gods judgement of them. As the crops fail and other maladies befall them, this sense of guilt and self-loathing intensifies and the family start to turn on each other. In tone it feels like Kubrick’s The Shining mixed up with elements from all sorts of European folk tales (the Witch raises from her lair looking like Red Riding Hood at one point). It looks bizarrely ravishing in a grey, dreary, monochrome way, and sounds utterly horrifying (an unnerving soundtrack of period instruments coupled with wailing reminiscent of György Ligeti’s atmospheres in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Its a nightmare of puritanical guilt, a family consumed by their faith and religion, the darkness of their wild surroundings settling into their hearts, as if the land is itself turning upon them. Is it actually a Witch terrorising them (she never speaks, or has her actions explained, and is only fleetingly glimpsed) or is it simply the Puritans own guilt and self-loathing manifested in the shadows, externalised into something that truly only exists in their minds?
Based on all sorts of folklore and memoirs, it hearkens back to real history, of settlers in the New World struggling through the horrors of famine and disease and child mortality,the brutal testing of their Faith eventually culminating in tales of Witchcraft (and the resulting Salem Witch-trials ).
The characters all seem very real; they are of their time, never really behaving or reasoning things out as modern people would (hence the frustrations, I expect, of some audiences). Its a reminder that most period films are simply transposing modern people into historical tableau- something simply not the case here. The sense of place and time is utterly convincing; the period details are rich and seem authentic, and some of the imagery is quite amazing (and very disturbing). Its a genuinely unsettling, really gripping horror film and one of the best films I have seen this year. I’ll cautiously recommend it as I can appreciate its rather divisive, but crikey, what a horror film. It really gets under your skin (well, it did mine anyway, and I’ve been endlessly thinking about it ever since I saw it.)