The Witch Review: Old World Dread

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The Witch is the rare horror film with a lot of emotional heft and actual narrative to unpack. For that alone, it deserves praise, but also for its committed, atmospheric historical aesthetic. In fact, The Witch hits all the notes of a great horror movie just without actually being all that scary.

The film follows a religious family in 17th century New England as they try to make a home for their family. Things get creepy quick when the titular witch steals the family’s youngest child, an infant boy. Something horrific is about to happen and we cut to black for a long pause before the next scene starts. It’s an interesting technique that forces the mind to linger on what we saw start to happen. It ends up being The Witch‘s unique brand of horror, but it is also heavily overused. More traditional horror tactics come into play late in the film and writer/director Robert Eggers executes them well, with a little help from the strong story he crafted. Horror is always more horrifying when you actually care about what’s going on.

Most of that care is on Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest of the children in the family. She’s strong, caring, and has a touch of rebelliousness, immediately setting her apart from her hyper-religious parents. As the witch continues to torment the family, the parents increasingly look at Thomasin as the culprit. That’s when The Witch turns from a creepy witch story to a heart-wrenching story of how religious radicalism expels this girl from her family. That’s where the narrative meat resides in this film, not the origin of the witch or other annoying horror tropes. This is first and foremost the story of a girl in exile and how that affects her. The Witch is a better film without the expectation of being scared. It’s rare to have a horror film put story first, and there is certainly a feeling of dread throughout, but there could absolutely be more time spent actually scaring us then tricking us into thinking we’re about to be scared. As Eggers’ debut feature, one hopes he can sharpen his horror techniques. But as for writing a compelling script, he’s got that down pat. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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