Sunday, March 6, 2016

'The Witch' review

It's always very interesting to watch the constantly shifting trends of the horror genre, as pretty much every decade brings something new. The early 2000's belonged to the shock horror genre- bloody, vicious films like Saw and Hostel dominated the landscape, earning large sums of money and shocking audiences along the way. But in 2016, it's pretty unlikely that you'll find a gorefest in theaters. Later in the decade, found footage saw a strong resurgence and changed everything, giving us box office hits like Paranormal Activity. And yet, in recent years, we've definitely seen a downturn in the number of found footage movies.Today's horror films seem to be shifting in focus. There seems to be a rebirth of indie horror, with critics and audiences deeming films like The Babadook and It Follows as instant classics.

Now, there's a third film that has united critics and horror fans alike- Robert Eggers' The Witch. The buzzy flick premiered back at Sundance 2015 and immediately captured attention. And it's not hard to see why. I don't think I've seen a horror film like The Witch in a very long time, if ever. It's told entirely in period-accurate language and it's based on a collection of New England folktales, both of which are aspects that set it apart from the pack. With all the flashy elements (and the endorsement of the Church of Satanism), it's easy to not realize how good The Witch is on a basic filmmaking level. An artsy exploration of the dangers of religious zealotry, The Witch is less scary than it is totally unnerving. It's creepy, archaic, and truly fascinating. I'm still not entirely convinced of its new masterpiece status in the horror community, but it's a pretty good example of skilled genre filmmaking from a director who I think we'll watching for a very, very long time.

The Witch opens with a mystery. As the first shot bursts onto the screen, we see an entire family- William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson)- being excommunicated from Puritanical society in 1630s. The family moves out to the woods, completely alone and left to their own devices. Everything seems okay at first, but the family's youngest child soon disappears. It incites a panic within the family, and soon, as their religion fades and terrifying things begin to occur, chaos will reign within the woods as Satanism and godlessness run rampant. Creepy goat murders, weird sexual undertones and infant murder ensue.

The Witch is a thoroughly grotesque and outlandish creation. It's not as scary as it is completely and entirely messed up. There were very few moments where I jumped out of my seat in fear, but oh boy, there were plenty of moments where I looked on in terror. Robert Eggers has made a true horror film here, but first and foremost, he has made a film. A real, honest-to-goodness motion picture- something you don't always see in the horror genre. This is a carefully and meticulously crafted production, with some gorgeous cinematography and a plethora of terrifically cold and calculating shots. The performances are tightly calibrated, and the way that the film unfolds is mesmerizing in a slow burn fashion. You'll leave perplexed and you won't know quite know what to think, but you'll also be buzzed in an almost indescribable way by this hallucinatory chiller.

But wait- will you actually enjoy this film? When people ask me about different horror films, it's usually a pretty straight "Yes, it's scary" or "No, it's stupid." And yet, there's an interesting note to make about The Witch. When the film was released on February 19, the box office was great (one of A24's strongest releases), but audiences resoundingly rejected The Witch by handing it a "C-" Cinemascore. Remember, this is a film that is certified fresh at 89% Rotten Tomatoes, stands at 83 on the consistently difficult Metacritic, and also has an army of horror fans that have deemed it to be a masterpiece. So which one is it? Masterpiece or failure?

I think you really need to examine what kind of horror viewer you are before checking this one out. Patient viewers will be rewarded in the long run, but if you're looking for a more conventional horror film, don't bother. Because while The Witch does feature a substantial amount of scares, it is, as many critics and loving viewers have noted, an art house film. I saw it at my local multiplex, even though it really belongs at the Regal Art Cinema near my house. Not to categorize all horror films, but they're usually not too worried with themes or complex messages. That's why I was hesitant to label It Follows as a great film. Yeah, sure, it's kinda scary. But there's nothing to it. I always admired how it played off the sexual undertones of most horror films, but the scenario isn't all that interesting from a thematic perspective.

There's definitely something more to The Witch, and that unsettling quality is the reason that the film finds a quiet place to stick in your brain and haunt you for days. Beyond all of the crazy aspects of this flick, there's a simple theme about the dangers of religious fanaticism (which is part of the reason the Satanic Temple endorsed the film, bizarrely enough). It took me a while to get to the point where I understood what director Robert Eggers was trying to say- again, this is a very slow-moving film, even at a mere 90 minutes. But when I finally grasped it, the film struck me in an interesting way. It's a scary thing to watch a family collapse completely, losing their faith, humanity and sanity. That's what The Witch offers. It's endlessly satisfying, but also incredibly unconventional- after all, how many horror movies that you've seen feature a haunted goat and a heavy breathing bunny?

But beyond just the thematic intensity of The Witch lies a terrifically-crafted and well-acted film that will satisfy the cinephiles demanding a classically-made horror flick. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are solid as the parental unit, and there's an interesting dynamic between the two of them over the religion in the household. But the real stars are Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy. Scrimshaw is phenomenal as Caleb, brilliantly showing the burgeoning sexuality of a child trapped in Puritanical society. However, Taylor-Joy is the real breakout as Thomasin, noted by the fact that many Hollywood studios have already lined her up for a myriad of projects. Taylor-Joy carries much of the film, showing a wide range of maturity and emotion in the tumultuous role. Her character has some truly frightening moments, and her performance amplifies them.

The other breakout star of The Witch is director Robert Eggers, who immediately jumps into the conversation as a member of this new class of great horror filmmakers. Eggers' direction isn't overly flamboyant or intense- it's just laser-focused. Eggers proves himself as a master of atmosphere, utilizing the cinematography of Jarin Blaschke and Mark Korven's chilling score to create a mood of dread. So much of horror is about the right tone, and that's something that Eggers thoroughly understands, giving him loads of potential as a director.

The Witch is a bit of a tough watch. Even as someone who was incredibly excited to see this film, I found myself asking many times "Where is this really going?" The first half wanders a bit, even with the thrillingly gross scene where a witch kills a baby. But once Eggers truly gets rolling and once the true clash between Puritanism and Satan is revealed, this becomes quite a ride. It's filled with bone-chilling moments, ghoulish symbolism and almost instantly iconic images. It's a film that I think will continue to reward horror viewers for years to come.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Guardian, Joblo

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