Monday, February 22, 2016


Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of the film The Witch. Then one week ago, it was awash in buzz declaring it most frightening film to come around in years, a must see. I went to see it this opening weekend, taken in by the hype. And boy, was I taken.

For anyone else who has heard talk of this film, let me give you info I wish I'd had beforehand, and lay out clearly what it is and what it is not. It is not what I would call a horror movie. It's not built for "scares." It's not really about the supernatural, it's certainly not a slasher film, nor is it a psychological horror movie. It's a period piece set in colonial Massachusetts that might -- might -- be best categorized as a family drama. But the family is Puritan, with all the religious notions of that faith and time. Thus, there's a great preoccupation with evil and witchcraft, and from there the movie flirts with the subject matter you expect from the title.

Devout Puritan parents William and Katherine have been drummed out of their village, too zealous for their company. They find a plot of land on the edge of a forest, and set up a small farm for their five children. When their crops can't keep up with their needs, and their infant son goes missing, they believe that God is testing them. But tensions quickly rise, to a point where comments made in jest are soon cause for suspicion of evil intent within their own family.

Despite the efforts of a shrieking musical score, I wouldn't call this movie frightening as such... except in that it makes it abundantly clear how happy you should be not to live in the place and time depicted. Especially if you happen to be female, and especially if you aren't particularly religious. In that, there is some sort of message here, so at least the movie does have lofty aspirations.

But the messengers are often incomprehensible. The script is written in period dialogue, a heightened form of language that takes the ear a bit of getting used to. That part of it actually works; the language is very carefully deployed in a way that the meaning doesn't often get lost in the words. But the characters also all sport an accent from some rural location in their native England -- some centuries-old dialect you're not used to hearing -- and deciphering that takes your full concentration. Whenever the characters get particularly emotional (which is a lot), you simply can't understand most of what they're saying.

Though there are a couple of performances that really transcend this and make you take notice. And it might surprise you, but it's not the two parents. The two oldest children are the real standouts in this cast. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the film's main character Thomasin, and you really feel sympathy for her as her world starts unraveling around her. Then there's Harvey Scrimshaw, the young boy playing Caleb. He's called upon to play a wide range in this film, and he excels. He's particularly strong in one of the film's truly tense moment, an actually shocking scene with a climactic moment that also happens to be filmed all in one take.

But just as the film was trying to win me back, it reaches a truly frustrating ending. The final moments feel wholly unearned by everything that has come before, completely at odds with previous tone and style. The real frustration is that the ending seems to come from some other movie, a movie more like what I was expecting to see in the first place, and thus it only leaves me disappointed at what might have been.

There is an audience for The Witch somewhere, a small niche who loves period pieces and atmospheric spookiness, perhaps. But I didn't get what I was looking for. I'd give the movie a D+.

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