Roger Ebert once said of movie trailers that “Any trailer is more likely to reflect the movie the studio wanted than the movie it got.” Rarely has that been more apropos than in the case of The Witch, a spectacularly strange, unnerving film that’s being marketed as a traditional mainstream horror film…despite the fact that, while the movie is undeniably creepy, chilling, and scary, it’s only barely a horror film (to borrow a line from Scott Tobias’s NPR review).
That’s not to say that The Witch isn’t very, very good. It’s just that, based off of the trailers, people are expecting jump scares, demonic animals, evil witchcraft, and instead are getting a movie that’s entirely told in Puritanical dialect, with long camera shots, horror that often unfolds offscreen or in the shadows, and whose most chilling moment consists of little more than some whispered lines of dialogue. In other words, it’s not the movie people want it to be, and so I don’t necessarily blame them for reacting so strongly against it.
And yet, to dismiss The Witch like that is to turn your back on one of the most singular, stark, compelling pieces of independent horror in some time, one that manages to be simultaneously historical drama, psychological horror, and discussion of faith (and feminism) in America. If you took the witch-hunt paranoia of The Crucible, set it in the unnerving atmosphere of The Shining, and mixed in the religious conflict of the original Wicker Man, you might get something like The Witch – and if that feels like some unexpected inspirations for a horror film, you’re not wrong.
Set in a desolate, stark outpost on the outskirts of a Puritan settlement (our family has been outcast, for reasons that are never made entirely clear), The Witch feels like it’s as much a horror film about this alien, unwelcoming world as it is the titular entity lurking in the nearby woods. Because make no mistake: there is a witch in this film, and the film wastes little time in making sure we know it, as a young child vanishes from under the watchful eyes of her older sister, only for us to be shown her fate in grim detail. What follows from there is a slow escalation of paranoia and tension, as the family turns on each other, the wilderness around them turns increasingly hostile, the children start acting up, and accusations start flying.
None of that even gets into the fascinating subtext of the film, which largely orbits around the fact that the older sister is on the verge of puberty – a fact that’s neither lost on her parents nor on her younger brother. And with the family’s strict religion cracking down on the role of children and women, to say nothing of the sin that keeps creeping into their lives in various ways, it’s not hard to feel like the film has a lot to say about the role of religion in gender roles and institutionalized sexism, even before you get to a strange, unsettling ending that lingers with you.
And even while all of this is mixing, the film constantly builds on its dread, slowly increasing the level of unease through the use of shadows, an unsettling score, and long camera shots that constantly convey a sense of wrongness at all times. It’s a quiet horror film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not horrifying; as the family starts turning on each other and whatever it is in the woods gets braver, the film becomes nigh on unbearable at points, eschewing cheap scares for something more fundamentally unsettling, disturbing, and somehow just wrong.
It’s not a film for all tastes, rest assured. It’s a stranger film than you might expect; more subdued, more atmospheric, more subtle, more thoughtful. And ultimately, it’s less comforting than your usual horror film. There’s no easy answers here, no simple good vs, evil confrontation; instead, it’s something stranger and more alien, and something more primal. And if that works for you – like it did for me – you’re in for one of the best horror films in recent memory.
Just…you know…watch out for Black Phillip. There’s something strange about that old goat.