I despair of the horror genre. There are no genuine scares: there are signifiers of fear that are meant to be scary merely because they are placed in front of a camera: creepy clown dolls; silent sullen children; bare tree branches shifting in a breeze. Blood and gore are offered as terrifying, but surgical grossness is not terror. Nothing is left to the imagination, because horror movies now have no imagination. Horror movies have cleverness, sometimes, perhaps — as in, What clever new ways can we come up with the eviscerate a human body? Horror movies don’t have atmosphere, they have jump scares. Horror movies don’t have psychology: they have psychopaths.
But now there’s The Witch, which operates on a much smarter and far more psychologically incisive level… until it tosses all of that out with an obvious, simplistic cop-out of an ending. I can’t recall the last time a film — of any genre — fell down so badly in its final minutes, so thoughtlessly tossed out all the fine work it had done to get there.
And it is very fine filmmaking, stylistically speaking, first-time feature writer-director Robert Eggers does here. (Eggers won Best Dramatic Director at Sundance last year, and the film won Best First Feature at London Film Festival last autumn, which is where I saw it.) He has primarily been a production designer, and it shows in the best way in the ominous atmosphere he creates around a Puritan family living on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of a foreboding forest in 1630s New England. This doesn’t look or feel like any other horror movie you’ve ever seen; Jarin Blaschke’s gloomy cinematography renders the landscape as a chilly presence in its own right, and Eggers’ unhurried unfolding of the dynamics of this religiously obsessed family is at once pastoral in its pace, cold in its minimal creature comforts, and heated in its spiritual fervor. The dialogue is presented by the excellent cast in the dialect of the time, which sounds (appropriately) stilted and otherworldly to our ears today.
This isn’t a word that can be applied to many horror movies of late: eldritch. There is something truly eeriely sinister seeping from The Witch, and it is electrifying in a way that is very rare for the genre. Eggers creates some astonishingly unsettling visuals — precisely the sorts of things you would expect to spring from the minds of people obsessed with the Bible, and particularly with the hellfire stuff — as bad omens seem to plague the family, including the disappearance of their newborn son seemingly into thin air. Griefstricken mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie: Game of Thrones, Catch Me Daddy), blames her eldest child, teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), because she was watching the infant; and as another son is taken by a fever and seizures, fears of witchcraft grip the family. As the family turns on one another with increasing suspicion and violence, we are left to wonder just what is going on. Is the family’s isolation and the psychological stress they are under combining with father William’s (Ralph Ineson: Kingsman: The Secret Service, Guardians of the Galaxy) fixation on sin to drive them all mad? Or is the forest home to an actual evil that is out to capture their souls?
Eggers walks that line of ambiguity beautifully… until he doesn’t, and comes down on a concrete explanation for what has beset the family, at far too late a point in the film to do anything with it. It’s an explanation that is actively offensive in the context of how he deploys it: if he had offered his explanation earlier and explored it — and the foundations for that are certainly present and could have been built upon — there is room for making that explanation work in a way that would have redeemed the offensiveness and also been something extraordinarily new for the genre.
As The Witch stands, though, Eggers has appropriated a place and a time and a psychological ethos — Christian fundamentalist religious hysteria in the buildup to the Salem witch trials — and found the one ending that has absolutely nothing to say about it. It transforms what had been a disquietingly subtle and disconcerting film into little more than a cheap trick.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival