The Witch seems like an outlier in terms of a horror film released in the first two months of the year. The film has far less in line with recent horror turns like The Forest or The Boy as much as it does with slower burn horror of old. Mainly, the most direct comparison I could make is The Shining, mainly in terms of major themes and style. The Kubrick level building of tension is dynamic at every turn and permeates every sense at some point. The labored shot composition. The hauntingly piecing music. The texture of every piece of period clothing. It all feels so tactile and authentic, giving the notion of a real lived in environment. It helps add to the world we’re sucked into, one with a limited population that mainly centers on the family who falls victim to the ways of the titular magical lady who lives in the woods.
Yet, the biggest threat to this family isn’t said witch as much as it is the paranoia that fuels each of them. Each member of the family has an inner sense of turmoil right from the start after they’re thrown out of their position at a plantation due to their extreme religious beliefs. The father has his turmoils between God & his family, the mother has an over protective attachment to her newborn that ignores the needs of her older children and even the children each manage to find ways to backstab each other for petty reasons. All of their behavior could easily seem contrived for the sake of the story, but The Witch manages to set these characters up so well from the beginning that it all feels natural… though one couldn’t be blamed for missing some of this early on when the 17th century dialect and accenting as it does need getting used to.
The point is, the entire family in The Witch has a justifiable reason for their extreme paranoia, which is why the extreme reactions that come from it feel as raw and bitter as a story about supposed witchcraft should. While this Puritan era story takes place roughly half a century before the Salem Witch Trials that defined the American perception of witchery for hundreds of years to follow, the similar threat of persecution is still alive and well here. The entire family slowly turns against each other despite their desperation to stay intwined, if for more selfish reasons than each other. The only one who seems to be somewhat pure hearted is Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, who’s biggest transgressions are merely being a teenage girl with some spite towards her more annoying younger siblings. Anya delivers a stunningly grounded performance that keeps the film together like the most reliable industrial strength glue. As the only life she’s known falls apart around her, she constantly tries to keep some kind of sanity through even the most menial task, all of which end up backfiring as her actions cause her family to grow more and more distant.
In that way, The Witch very clearly plays on theocracies of the time to build tension, but also to comment on modern perceptions of gender roles that still linger to this day. That this girl is immediately treated as a scapegoat for all these problems rather than the destruction the family has created for itself that The Witch is merely working off of. That inner horror is so genuinely gripping that the literal horror scenes honestly have less impact. They’re not bad, but it’s not nearly as disturbing as the implications of the family or a slow close up of tree limbs in the forest or even a mere close up of a goat. The characters and setting speak volumes in The Witch, which is more than can be said about for most horror films widely released as of yet.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Black Goats