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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Witch movie review: casts a good spell… and then a bad one

The Witch yellow light

Eerie and sinister, operating on a more psychologically incisive level than the typical horror flick… until it tosses it all with a cop-out of an ending.
I’m “biast” (pro): always on the lookout for new ideas in horror…

I’m “biast” (con): …but usually disappointed

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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


yellow light 2.5 stars

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The Witch (2016)
US/Can release: Feb 19 2016
UK/Ire release: Mar 11 2016

MPAA: rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong threat, violence)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Danielm80

    I actually think that horror movies have gotten more interesting in the past ten or fifteen years (and especially in the last year or two), because of independent films like The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Goodnight Mommy, Let the Right One In, Frailty, and The Orphanage. (Unfortunately, we also got It Follows and Under the Skin.) Not all of those films have big scares, but I find them more frightening than movies where people jump out of the shadows, because the ideas behind the films are so unsettling.

  • James

    I thought It Follows was actually one of the better recent horror films.

  • RogerBW

    To a first approximation: drowning is scary. Someone who wants to drown you is horror.

  • althea

    Very interesting. I found myself thinking, if MaryAnn’s review would make an impression on the director, he still has time to rewrite the ending, refilm it, re-release it, and maybe make this into a classic.

  • Edward Rochford

    Interesting…..because I’ve read reviews that say the last half hour is awesome. Bottom line….this is why you can’t take one person’s view on a movie….this is why Rotten Tomatoes is a great site because your getting a bulk of opinions/reviews. Still seeing this movie and can’t wait!

  • I agree that truly scary horror needs to be about ideas. The problem with this film is that the idea that it thinks is scary isn’t. It’s old-hat and also doesn’t really make sense even on its own merits. It could have been scary in a non-old-hat way, but it needed a lot more exploration and examination to get there.

    I’ll probably have to write a spoiler-alert post about this. :-(

  • Bluejay

    this is why you can’t take one person’s view on a movie

    Is anyone forcing you to?

  • Danielm80

    Oh, I believe you about this movie. I’m just responding to your first paragraph; there are plenty of horror movies that aren’t a cause for despair.

  • Beowulf

    I think they’re in a wood that’s somehow cut off from what is really the 21st century! The baby needs his shots, legally, and the authorities pretend to kidnap him.

    If this is right, give me the money.

  • Kyle

    You sure were right about Deadpool… Terrible movie…Flop for sure. You should reopen the thread!

  • amanohyo

    Terrible movie indeed. I vote that you reopen the thread in one year (if at all) – anyone crazy enough to hold a grudge that long might actually have something interesting to say. Or maybe post a separate discussion page that was only open to subscribers?
    Back on topic, when would be the ideal time to stop watching The Witch and walk out to preserve the ambiguity? Would ten minutes before the end do it? It sounds like my kind of movie, but I’d rather not leave angry and disappointed.

  • Bluejay

    Not sure if you’re serious or if you’re a dick trying to get her to open herself up for all the Reddit abuse.

  • Nope.

  • Ten minutes before the end sounds about right.

    Deleted the comment you’re responded to because it was wildly off-topic.

  • kyle

    you*

    Deadpool.

  • sick and tired of the dictator

    absolute waste of time.terrible

  • Kitt

    I want my $ back after that movie. 2 stars.

    In trying to make sense of it and give it a fair shake, my interpretation of the ending was that the daughter finally went mad, embraced her parents’ condemnation, and fantisized the ending.

    The begging was much better but a little slow in developing.

    Kitt

  • leah

    I too would love to read your ‘with spoilers’ post on the movie, it appears I feel about it much the same way as you do, particularly the ending, so I’m curious how you feel the story could have been handled differently so that the conclusion felt more organic and less of a contrived let-down (if that’s what you’re getting at in your review and comments, I might be misunderstanding your gripe with it).

  • leah

    I’m not sure how spoilery this is but —
    I far prefer this interpretation of yours than what I figure was intended.

  • JustGreg

    The ending wrapped it up nicely. The problem with the film was the middle, not the end. Too much tedium and foreboding that didn’t deliver. Very few scares for a horror film and a lot of “can we please get on with it?” feelings for me.

    I thought the director was great with atmosphere, not so great with story, twists, turns and delivering more than just one scare or two.

  • Joe

    You are right MaryAnn. The last five minutes of the film ruined what came before.Instead of sticking to its psychological/socio sexual underpinnings(it was exceptionally Bergmanesque with a touch of the Wicker Man) and had her survive(she didn’t eat her ration of ergot poisoned porridge perhaps?) I for one would have left the film wholly satisfied. Instead we get what we didn’t want. The “It Really Was The Devil” denouement was annoying and frankly, naive.

  • Joe

    I also felt that the film was decidedly anti-woman. Although one may choose to view it as the characters themselves do(the Devil is real) and women are his instruments and merely leave it at that, as a cinematic trope(and an outdated one I might add) what effect will this movie have on the greater religious conservatives? My friend’s Catholicism made the film nightmarish for her. What will it do to others? This is the 21st century, after all. Right?

  • ANONYMOUS

    My question is was the witch actually real or perceived? I also did not like the ending, although I found it super creepy!

  • ANONYMOUS

    It Follows blows The Witch out of the water!!! Loved It Follows.

  • JustGreg

    ***Spoiler Alert***

    The ending revealed that the devil and his coven of witches were real and were indeed responsible for the havoc. Our protagonist, for lack of a better word, was not one up until that point. When she said she would like to live life deliciously, in response to his question, she became one when everything else in her life had been taken from her.

  • ANONYMOUS

    So creepy! The ending and actually most of the movie just made me uncomfortable, lol

  • ar

    you are 100% right the film was good and then it sucked. all you could hear of the audience was groans when they expected something Excitingly terrifying to happen.

  • reeeee

    You hit the nail on the head with this review. Mixture of audience groans and laughter in response to the (frankly, silly) end reveal. They should have either a) done away with the witch altogether and kept the movie in the realm of crucible-esque psycho-social horror; b) just ended with the girl sitting at the table or c) at a push, run with the more obvious option of some sort of showdown with the actual witch (whose sudden sidelining in the final scenes of the film felt cheap and, as you correctly identify, only served to undo the enigma / dramatic tension established up to that point). A shame. Still thought it was a great movie, that all said. I look forward to watching again with subtitles (lol).

  • JustGreg

    Ending with the girl sitting at the table would have been a great big groaner for me – incomplete, art-house film type eye-roller. The ending to this film was the best thing about an otherwise tedious and flawed film that delivered with the eerie but left me wanting for a huge portion in the middle.

  • I’ve just seen the film again, and will have something in-depth to say about the ending very soon. Teaser, though: it will be completely the opposite your take. :-)

  • LorinThePhotographer

    I agree with you entirely. I love psychological thrillers, that make you think, ponder….. But this movie fell so flat and was the beginning was so long and boring I was looking at my watch 15 minutes into the movie.

  • LorinThePhotographer

    I agree. The word tedium is a perfect description for the beginning and middle of the movie. It was so indulgent with the costuming, vernacular… they just couldn’t bear to leave anything on the editing floor. The slow pacing coupled with dire settler living sucked the life out of me.

  • witch hunter

    I would like to perform some witchcraft kind of like that which was performed on the baby to the people who produced the movie Forever Without and f*** them

  • witch hunter

    The movie did absolute not creep me out in fact I thought it was just disturbing and not actually scary I’d rather actually see you know everything that I love being burnt to the ground than actually watch that movie

  • Bloomquist

    Hi MaryAnn, (SPOILERS)
    I just saw this film last week, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since. The ending seems to be the peg that keeps me tied to it (even though, WOW, everything else). Now, I’ve only seen it once, so my thoughts are still nascent, but everything in it refers to nature: the lighting, the costumes, the sets, the lack of CGI with the animals (Black Phillip rising up… terrifying!); but also the setting, the family’s exile from a gated community to the woods. Nature is terrible, unforgiving. The original community keeps it out, and the family throughout the film tries to hold it back, but it encroaches and eventually overwhelms them.
    The lynch pin scene for me is when the pubescent boy finds the hut in the woods. A beautiful 30-something woman comes out wearing a hooded red cape, obviously a reference to the Grimms’ Rotkäppchen. But instead of that menstrual red being a target for a predatory wolf, it becomes a badge of ferocious fertility. At this point, the only other witch we’ve seen is a crone, meaning we’re working backwards. At this point we’re to understand the story is looking for a maiden to complete the trinity. Of course it’s the daughter!
    The flow of the story seems to be a rejection of dogma, a rejection of superstition, an acceptance of nature no matter how terrible and terrifying it might be (family dead, only the woods and the fire and the air to lift one up.)
    Still trying to sort this in my thoughts.

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