Movie Review: The Witch

From first-time director Robert Eggers, The Witch transports you to a realm of tantalizing fear and screwed-up families, all set against a haunting backdrop of 17th Century New England. Delivering solid performances from a quite unfamiliar -- yet highly satisfying-- cast, as well as some powerful cinematography that'll make your blood run cold, this classical horror takes fans of the genre down a road made popular not by the run-of-the-mill jump-scares, but by slow-churning thrills that crawl up your spine till the very last shot.

Banished from their Puritan Christian plantation after being accused of heresy against the Christian faith, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family migrate into the outskirts of town, eventually finding a new home at the edge of the forest. Months passing, and the family soon adapting to their life outside of the town, strange occurrences begin to arise after the family's newest born child, Samuel, goes missing. Lost from the hands of the eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family begins to question the daughter's faith in both the family and the Christian religion. With her siblings soon turning against her, deeming her a witch to bring evil upon the family, the daughter must prove her innocence any way she matter how far into madness it brings her.

Sitting not exactly on the fence between enjoying the horror genre or not, but rather sitting on the side where the genre looks all but hopeless in my eyes, as far as originality, when I saw my first peek at the indie horror flick The Witch, I was hesitant to dismiss it. The genre, in recent years, managing to deliver a few decent entries -- like 2014's It Follows and The Babadook -- among its plethora of jump-scare junk, this past year of 2015 failed to evoke anything more than lackluster sequels and odd mediocre flops. With The Witch, we entered 2016 with a dynamic entry packed with both surprising acting and phenomenal cinematography. While I'm far from a huge horror fan, the suspenseful nature of this intriguing sleeper hit managed to successfully capture my attention.

Among its titular supernatural elements and strong religious themes, one of the most defining aspects about this unusual flick was its cast. Pulled straight from the hidden reaches of Hollywood, and reliant on up and coming actors rather than well-known names, The Witch tosses us a number of brilliant performances from a cast made up of mostly young children. From Anya Taylor-Joy's wide-eyed yet menacing lead as the accused daughter Thomasin to Ralph Ineson's grumbling father of faith, the cast delivered genuine performances that felt that they actually lived in the 17th century. While their performances may not be Oscar-worthy or anything, they worked for a film such as this, and elevated the film to a greater level than last year's flawed horror collection. To my surprise, even the youngest child actors in the film -- especially the young lady who played the sibling accuser of Thomasin, Ellie Grainger -- managed to sell me on their characters, spitting out their almost-Shakespearean dialogue like it was their common tongue.

While I may not be very religious myself, I have to say that the strong connotations with the Puritan Christian religion were also one of the most memorable pieces of this film. From the concepts of heresy and the deep-seated devotion to God and prayer, the film evoked a very realistic atmosphere to it that allowed it to connect even to a person who isn't strongly aware of the ideals behind the religion. The plot surrounding a family soon consumed by the Devil and his many forms, the film played up the breakdown from a sturdy family of God to a mess of nothing but wrongfulness and accusation really well. Also tackling aspects like desire and fear, and how these sins can bring a person out into the light and out of the protection of God, the film was compelling throughout, mainly due to its excellent use of symbolism and foreshadowing.

While it didn't hinder my enjoyment of this film to a great degree, one of the few problems with the film had to be its pacing. Okay, so I may not pay much attention to pacing in my reviews usually, but for this film, I felt it was necessary to bring up. While the pace of the film isn't all bad, one problem I could see fans of the horror genre bringing up would be the lack of excitement in many of the scenes in the film. Most definitely in the "slow-burn thriller" category, a category of films I take with a grain of salt and ultimately end up loving every time (well, maybe not Sicario), The Witch crawls to its finale at a less-than-brisk pace. While the introduction of the banished Christian family and the haunting countdown to the film's less-than-pleasant conclusion may feel drawn-out at times in this film, I think this format really works for a film like this. Most horror films today get straight to the point and reveal the computer-animated ghoul in the first ten minutes, leaving little to the imagination; What The Witch does, however, is graciously explore its characters and its religious themes, placing both a fulfilling sense of knowledge and a fantastic feeling of anticipation in its audience.

Overall, I have to say I'm glad I saw this film. While it may not have been the exciting, upbeat flick I needed on a Saturday afternoon, it delivered nearly everything I expected from it going in. While the horror genre may not be my all-time favorite, The Witch was an unexpected surprise wrapped up in a classical 17th century nail-biter. While it may come off a bit like The Crucible at times (which isn't all bad if you like witches and exaggerated acting), The Witch is a worthy independent horror flick that doesn't need big names or cheap thrills to make it memorable.

I gave this film a 7 out of 10 for its brilliant cinematography that managed to both chill your bones and compel you towards its frightening ending, its unusual cast that offered genuinely realistic performances, and its killer finale that leaves you on the edge of your seat, wanting more.         

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