Culture: poetry, prose, review

The Witch: Period Drama Disguised as Horror?

By Hannah Gore

Illus. Jan Luiken for John Bunyan’s The Life and Times of Mr Badman (1905).

I think I vaguely remember being assigned “The Crucible” in high school English. If we were, I didn't bother to read it. Knowing how he treated Marilyn Monroe, and having suffered through “Pygmalion” in its entirety, I would rather peel off my fingernails over and over again for 1000 years than read another of Arthur Miller's works. Honestly, I'm not a fan of Puritan-era media in general. There's only so much "prithee" and "thou'st" and Calvinist ideology I can take. Still, Gore is literally my last name—  and as a horror fan, when I saw the early trailers for The Witch (2015), director and writer Robert Eggers's feature-length debut, I was excited. Actually having seen the movie itself, I can't help but feel a little disappointment.

In The Witch, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Katie Dickie) leave their settler's colony, five children in tow, for the extreme wilderness. Under oldest daughter Thomasin's (Anya Taylor-Joy) watch, the couple's infant son disappears. Ensuing darkness and paranoia threaten to tear the family apart, their beliefs being questioned and their lives endangered, as they fall prey to their worst fears.

Technically perfectly executed, this film is an absolute delight to drink in— leering camera angles, brutal sound effects, and a modern take on a Giallo-esque soundtrack work together to create a mounting sense of uneasiness, slowly building up to the film's climax. Expansive shots of endless trees and skies emphasize nature's overpowering presence; shots from within the forest bring claustrophobic dread.  

Though it does a great job ramping up tension during its first act, The Witch slows to a crawl towards its middle. Much time is spent as voyeurs, seeing William and Katherine scream at each other. Seeing Katherine yell at Thomasin. Seeing Thomasin yell at her creepy younger twin siblings Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson). It feels more like watching an old-timey TLC reality show about a dysfunctional family of crusty Puritans* than the horror show audiences might expect or hope for. This might be okay if they were likable as characters in any way, but they're just irredeemable enough that they seem to overstay their welcome on screen.

To feel scared, one would have to be fully immersed into this family's Puritan point of view, but I didn't quite get there. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from historical documents. I sat in a silent theater of nine other people and still missed every few words. Depending on who you ask, this painstaking accuracy is either a hindrance to or a selling point for the film. Much of this attention to detail, ironically, is what took me out of the world of The Witch. Some of its symbolism is too on-the nose for me: I rolled my eyes when young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) (who practically monologues in an earlier scene about the nature of sin), in the throes of possession, literally spits up an entire apple. The family goat, when milked, only produces blood. I'm sure this movie will be good essay or thesis fodder in the future.

Some might say horror doesn't necessarily have to be scary. I respectfully disagree; this movie's best parts are when Eggers lets loose, assaulting viewers with visuals that are grotesque, lurid, and nightmarishly surreal. My favorite horror doesn't focus too intently on meaning, but on imagery and the primal fear it brings forth. This movie feels too aware of its allegorical nature; it's too consciously artistic to allow me to let go and feel fear. I'm looking forward to what The Witch means for the next wave of horror (hopefully an end to the popularity of found footage movies), but unfortunately, I wasn't a huge fan of this one.

*shoutout to the costume and makeup departments for their commitment to making this family realistically filthy, down to their dirt-caked nailbeds!

Consider avoiding if you're averse to: body horror; period dramas; old-timey language; mumbling; religious themes

Watch if you: prefer subtle horror movies/thrillers; actually care about and can empathize with Puritans; enjoy or don't mind being hit over the head with symbolism; appreciate an artfully constructed film; can see it with subtitles (!!!)

Tip: see it on a weekday night alone or with a quiet friend

Rating: 8.5/10 stars