THERE is no more ill regarded genre in the film industry than horror. Often clichéd, horror has rarely been graced with high quality films. Cheap jump scares. Poor plotting. Asinine character choices. There are more, so many more, but I fear detailing the woes of modern horror may be a challenge which proves to be greater than my equal. Suffice it to say, It is a genre overloaded with content. Hop on Netflix and you’ll wonder why you yourself haven’t sat atop the director’s helm with your name scrawled across its back, pointing fingers and words at others as you construct a film. HOW hard could it possibly be? The answer is hard, which is why there are so few quality entries.
MY friends and I have devised a simple yet effective way to determine just how worthy of our time a potential horror film may be: if it has more than 1 star, it’s an exceptional horror film. This, of course, is a relative rating scale. In order to effectively watch horror, the viewer must have some idea of what they are getting into. One should almost never expect ground breaking cinematography. No beautifully symmetrical shots with everything in balance. No slow pans across a room or setting for a sense of scope or occasion. Scope is so often forgotten in film. Make the viewer feel small, directors. It works. Acting is perhaps the toughest facet of a horror film to do well. Effectively, actors are attempting to portray emotions and situations so far removed from any of their own personal experiences that they have little to draw from. A ghost, you say? Sure, I’ve experienced hauntings before. Nevermind the supernatural, the actor also has to portray death and true terror–a terror they hopefully will never know intimately, as they would not put themselves in the bizarre situations the writers tend to force in horror films. Oh yes, the writing. Often times the viewer sits there with clinched teeth and wonderment occupying their thoughts as characters act in disingenuous ways: why would they leave the safety of their alarm laden home at night? Why go down into the ancient basement. Why leave the gun on the nightstand as they wander the darkened halls of their powerless home with fragile bravery. Why give the gun to the bizarre stranger who just happened along. Who in their right mind ever trusts a stranger with a deadly weapon? Everyone in horror, that’s who. Never have so many people been so willing to give hitchers lifts, no matter how they look. It’s hard to look at deaths in horror and consider it anything other than a form of passive yet willful suicide.
THE Most naïve bunch of motherf|_|ckers to ever step foot on earth, those horror characters.
AND yet still I watch them. I watch them often enough to question both my sanity and taste, hoping to unearth a diamond in the dark and vast roughage. Hell, even some halfway decent stone. Doesn’t even have to be a diamond. Some of the ones I’ve unearthed that are worth the time: Penny Dreadful; The Catacombs; Splinter; As Above, So Below; Midnight Meat Train, to name a few. I’ve forgotten many. Some of those aren’t really unearthings–they are fairly well known.
BACK to the topic at hand. The truly great horror films are seldom actual horror films. Mulholland Drive. Lost Highway. Enemy. Chained. Taxi Driver. These movies inspire true horror within the viewer, or at least DREAD, which is perhaps more effective than horror. David Lynch is a master of this–the ability to conjure up a terrible sense of progressive dread, as if each scene is one little hash in a volume meter and by its end, it will all be too much to bear. CLICK by CLICK by CLICK we break down as we watch his films, until we fracture. Maybe we didn’t enjoy the film, but we can’t say we won’t remember the experience. TAXI DRIVER is no different. Everyone knows what is coming throughout the duration of Bickle’s journey, but no one wants it to happen. But we know it will. And we watch, waiting around till the fall. So few characters in film, television, and word ever fall without getting back up. To watch them fall and revel in it is haunting.
Enter THE WITCH.
SELDOM does someone enter their feature film career with a confident, unwavering entry such as this. ROBERT EGGERS demonstrates a polish and calm that most seasoned directors fail to achieve. THE WITCH has a real sense of setting, place and time. This doesn’t just come from the measured acting and terrific costumes–it comes from the steady hand of EGGERS. There is a level of patience on display that would drive lesser directors to unease and worry. The slow pans across the unconquered land. The lack of aggressive cuts. Just strong, clean imagery. The biggest form of a cut is the one the viewer is forced to indulge in when they blink, due to the disturbing, yet plainly presented nature of the images on display. The images which linger and draw out wholly and sharply. Stark. Violent. Witness them.
The lightly colonized new England of the 17th century in which the film takes place feels brutally vast and haunting. Desolate. A place without much hope unless you consider despair a form of such. The beginning of the film establishes the abolishment of the family the story will follow from their puritan plantation. William, the father, displays a devoutness so pure he, his wife and his children are told to rid the colony of themselves. AND off they go, into the wilderness to live their life.
FROM here their story continues to unravel. Thomasin, William’s eldest daughter, takes center stage. It’s her story. While entertaining her baby brother Samuel, something takes him away. There one moment. Gone the next. The scene is entirely impractical, as even if there is a force filled witch she couldn’t vacate the clearing soon enough. BUT she does anyhow. This bizarre instance establishes a grim tone for the film. Things will happen which are unexplainable. Something greater is at work here. Thomasin’s mother, Katherine, is devastated by the loss of SAMUEL. For this she blames Thomasin. She thinks she had something to do with it.
As the story advances, Thomasin’s younger siblings, twins Mercy and Jonas, begin to command more of our attention. They sing songs to the family goat and whisper strange things. In an effort to provide for the family, WiLLiaM and his eldest son CalEB go hunting in the forest. While in the deep woods Caleb engages William in a strongly worded argument about the nature of Samuel’s disappearance. The topic is Hell, and how Samuel is now there since he had not yet been baptized. This scene is important, as it illustrates to the viewer just how puritanical the family members aside from William really are. They all grieve not for the physical loss of Samuel but the damnation of his soul.
Soon thereafter Caleb goes missing while out in the woods with THomasin. Thomasin manages to return home, where again more attention, ridicule and blame are placed upon her. This is the central theme of the film: The slow oStRaciZiing of Thomasin by the family. This is something that is relevant today, no less than in the time of witch trials. Thomasin just wants to be loved and trusted by her family, but as everything falls apart in that dimming, grey world of the untraveled New England landscape she is instead cornered. Her mother wants to ship her away. Her father doesn’t know what to do.
I won’t write anymore of the story–That is something to be experienced. But the message of the film is wholly relevant. Much like TAXI DRIVER, the WITCH paints a disturbing portrait of someone being pushed to the edge by the people in their immediate life. The twisted part about all of it is that we silently root for that individual to attain justice, no matter the costs. This makes THE WITCH all the more compelling. We all know what is coming. We all knew before we’d ever even seen it. But still we watched and hoped for something different, and is that not what despair is? The greatness of any given thing often is derived from its simplicity, and THE WITCH, at its core, is a simple story. No tricks. No gimmicks. Watch. Listen. Feel.
I won’t say you’ll enjoy it, but you won’t forget it for a good long while.