When it comes to genre films, it seems like none are as difficult to get right as horror films. The temptation to fall back on cliched tropes, cheap jump scares, and the easy routes have plagued films of the genre for years now. While we’ve gotten to see the genre improve greatly over the past few years as well, with indie outings like It Follows, The Guest, or The Babadook, I feel like we have yet to see a horror film come along that maintains the same kind of timeless horror that has made films like The Shining or The Exorcist so memorable. After all, the best horror movies aren’t the one that make you jump in your seat, but make you curl up in it.
Which brings me to The Witch, last year’s Sundance darling that not only won the best directing award at the festival for rookie filmmaker Robert Eggers, but has remained a hot topic in the film community in the year since it was first introduced to audiences. Picked up by A24, The Witch is not only the first truly great film of 2016, but (and I’ll try to remain restrained when I say this) also the best horror movie of the decade so far.
Dipped inside the deepest reaches of unease and dread, The Witch follows a family of English immigrants who after being banished from their New England plantation, must build a home for themselves in a large clearing of the state’s rural regions. Little do they know that a Witch lives in the woods around them, and after the kidnapping of the family’s baby through seemingly supernatural means, the once tight-knight faith-based family begins to dissolve as corruption and evil seeps into the bonds that once connected them.
That’s all I will say regarding the plot of The Witch, which is best experienced by knowing as little as humanly possible going into it. This is a high-wire act of a film, with the kind of tension and discomfort that truly only comes when impeccable writing, directing, acting, and score come together in a grand fashion like they do here. From the opening scene alone, Eggers frames his characters in a close and intimate fashion, staying on his actors’ faces for as long as possible before turning away, all while a truly eerie and timeless horror score undercuts every line and moment throughout.
Pieced together by several terrifying scenes, the reason The Witch works is not because of what Eggers shows you, but what he doesn’t. The culprit behind the film’s madness is only ever witnessed a handful of times throughout the film, and each time fleetingly, letting your own human imagination fill in the blanks of what you didn’t see. In between those moments though, Eggers’ writing wisely lets you into the dynamics and emotions of each family member, so that not only are the terrifying moments effective from a technical standpoint, but the sequences leading up to them are even worse. Why? Because you legitimately worry about the characters and their fates.
That’s what truly separates The Witch from the other horror movies of the past few years though. It’s not just one thing. Instead, it’s the culmination of many. Part family-drama, part history lesson, part folk story, but a wholly terrifying experience, I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that The Witch is a horror film unlike anything I’ve seen before. Director Robert Eggers makes his feature debut here and with influences from Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and more, he’s announced himself as one of the brightest young filmmakers to watch. Working together with his composer Mark Korven and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers manages to make you uncomfortable from the opening scene, and all the way to one of the most satisfying and heart-wrenching finales in horror movie history.
Anya Taylor-Joy makes her debut here as the film’s lead, Thomasin, the girl who becomes linked to each supernatural, disturbing event in the film, through no fault of her own. Her journey here is heart-breaking, and Taylor-Joy astounds as she navigates through more emotions than most actresses have to deal with in this genre. What makes her performance here even more impressive is how closely Eggers’ puts the camera to her face, leaving his lead actress with no reprieve or chance to escape, which in turn, forces the same effect upon the audience.
Ralph Ineson also shines here, playing the family’s strict, faithful, and deeply flawed father, whose pride and ignorance leads them into some seriously dark territory. One scene near the end of the film made me feel more emotion than I thought a horror movie honestly could too, in which Ineson’s character begs for forgiveness to his God above, feeling the shame of his mistakes fall appropriately, and finally upon his weary shoulders.
Similar to how the Overlook Hotel quickly became a building made of closets, despite its large hallways and rooms, The Witch uses its large and wide-open environments to not make you feel safer, but instead more vulnerable. The clearing in which the family make their home does not feel large, but crowded, and the woods themselves are a labyrinth that will only ever lead its victims into the kind of horror they can’t escape from. Like its timeless genre predecessors, The Witch will effect you in ways that you won’t expect, and you will leave the theatre feeling changed in a deep, and profound way.
When I spoke to Eggers about the film, I asked him how a horror filmmaker works to balance the line between terror and being gratuitous, he replied by telling me it all came down to restraint, to listening to a filmmaker’s instincts about when too much becomes too much. He said it in such a matter-of-fact fashion, that I left the interview even more impressed by his talent. It’s one thing to make a truly great film, and it’s another to make a truly great horror film. But it’s something even more remarkable when it comes across as effortless, which should tell you more about The Witch‘s quality than I ever really could.
The Witch is set to hit theatres on February 19th.
Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.
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