The Witch is one of the more unique horror films you’ll ever see. That’s meant as an endorsement, but it could just as easily serve as a warning. It’s become increasingly clear over the last year, with the rise of indie horror sensations like It Follows, The Babadook, and Goodnight Mommy, that different sects of horror fandom want very different things from their scary movies. In one camp are horror fans who want only the scariest, edgiest possible films. They’ve been vocally unimpressed by this new wave of artistically excellent, but otherwise understated horror flicks.
I find myself planted firmly in the other camp. A good horror movie, as genre master Sam Raimi once said, “expands the audience’s mind.” Shock and revulsion might be the most visceral responses a movie can elicit from its audience, but the best scary stories (whatever their intensity) have always reached for more. The horror films that I find myself returning to are the ones that crept into my dreams; that subtly tugged at fears and anxieties I could barely admit I had; that implied whole worlds under my bed and in the shadows and lingering in the forest just outside my view. All of this is possible and happens regularly, but it also requires a little effort and maybe a less direct approach.
By that standard The Witch etches its place in a long line of subversive art horror classics. Set in 17th century America among Puritan settlers, the film immerses itself in the details of that world, from the heightened language (“thee’s” and “thou’s” abound) to the way paranoia and superstition are embedded in the characters’ worldviews. The story begins with Patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) cast out of an early European settlement in North America. The reason is not specified, though apparently it has something to do with his arrogance. Quicker than you can recite the Lord’s prayer, William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children leave the protection of the fence and head for the woods to live on their own.
This is not a good idea. We know it’s not a good idea. The sentiment has been reinforced by horror films, ghost stories, gothic novels, and myths throughout time. The woods at night are treacherous. Today we might justify this belief scientifically. We could get lost. We could catch pneumonia. We could encounter wild animals. But when our hairs stand on end and our heart starts racing, I’m not sure anything so reasonable is running through our heads. I’m not convinced our own expectations would be much different from the possessed animals, child sacrifices, and secret covens that William and his family encounter here.
The end credits boast that the film was based on actual folk tales and superstitions from the period. Undoubtedly, it’s meticulously researched. In some ways this is one of the most authentic period movies I’ve seen, horror or no, having more in common with pioneer films like Kelly Reichart’s Meek’s Cutoff and religious dramas like Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath than anything in the Friday the 13th vein. But it is a horror film and, if you’re in the right mood, it’s genuinely unsettling. This family is isolated, gripped by fears and prejudices they can barely comprehend. They’re helpless, not just because they’re outmatched by the elements, but because they cannot rely on each other. The most competent member of the family, teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Johnson), is singled out as the most likely witching candidate for little more reason than she’s a teenage girl. Such is the bond of family when order breaks down.
This is not merely a scary film. It’s a compelling fantasy told brutally and subversively for grownups. I’ll admit I prefer that approach, while also admitting there will probably never be a time where certain audiences won’t feel betrayed by that sort of film. I don’t know. I don’t have a ton of patience for the complaint that a movie “wasn’t what I expected it to be.” Since when is a storyteller under any sort of obligation to do exactly what we want them to do? How boring would stories be if that were the case? The expectation that every horror film should appeal to a specific list of predetermined conventions brings us back to the cookie cutter approach Cabin in the Woods should have put to death once and for all.
Actually, it reminds me of the grandmother of all divisive horror hits, The Blair Witch Project. Like its New England occult sister, that film was hailed the scariest movie of all time at Sundance only to baffle many audiences when it arrived in theaters later that year. Today, there probably isn’t a more hated or loved horror movie in existence. At the risk of accounting for taste, I wonder sometimes if that movie doesn’t work well as a litmus test. Audiences more willing to see themselves as the protagonist, more willing to view a movie as a personal experience, might be more willing to fill that movie’s shaky camerawork and long shots in the dark with their own anxieties. For audiences who wait until the director meets their specific demands for flesh, blood, and mayhem, this has to drive them insane. I can’t fault the critics, but as I seek the same thrills they do, I can’t help but feel like I’m winning.
The Witch’s writer/director Robert Eggers has more on his mind than hitting story beats. He wants to play with the audience’s emotions, make them relate to the prejudices of their ancestors, then force them to choose an impossible path out of the woods and ignorance. It’s exactly the kind of thing horror does at its best. Films like this are the reason why a genre meant to exploit our deepest prejudices has become the most fertile ground for rising artists and radical storytelling. While some might see films like We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Innkeepers, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as a takeover of their beloved genre by arthouse elites, I tend to think of it another way. All of film is necessarily being taken over by the next generation, and horror just happens to be leading the way.
Photos Courtesy of: A24