By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer
As a horror fanatic, I believe niche fears are challenging to evoke through horror movies because they must be awoken by certain circumstances in order to truly frighten. A fear of powerful women is what director Robert Eggers attempts to elicit in his film “The Witch,” but he narrowly misses the opportunity to conjure true horror in his audience. “The Witch” feels like a beautiful arthouse film; it has all the elements of a timeless movie. However, much like the blockbuster horror movies that have saturated theaters for the past decade, the film instills neither dread nor terror.
“The Witch” follows the religious and relational movements of a single Puritan family in colonial America. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage girl, her tense parents (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie), and her younger siblings battle the darkness of the forest near their isolated homestead, not realizing that its evil has already infested their lives. The viewer is immersed in the stark yet passionate lives of Eggers’ characters, and his talent as a costume and set designer drastically enhances the plot. As he wrote the screenplay, viewers should give him much consideration for creating a dynamic and energetic script despite the dense language of the period. Still, Eggers’ contributions to the film cannot overcome the two scenes which ruined the possibility of “The Witch” being a true horror film.
The first scene is the reveal of the primary villainess herself. At the screening I attended, people laughed when she stepped onto the screen. I assume that the casting director found a random sorority girl and asked her to put on a ‘sexy witch’ Halloween costume from Amazon. In no way did she fit the atmosphere Eggers had successfully set up prior to this scene. Her impression felt so cheap in comparison to her first killing in the film, a death so brutal and insane I would venture to compare it to the famed one in “Cannibal Holocaust.”
“The crone and the seductress are both threatening to the patriarchy, for different reasons,” Eggers told me in a phone interview. By his comments about the witch herself, I knew he had a feeling for the monster he wanted to create, but I do not believe she appeared as he intended on screen.
All of the subtle peaks of the slow burn following that scene with the witch restored my interest in the film. Eggers successfully establishes an atmosphere of dread, even if he does not allow his film to puncture the audience’s minds with it. One of the most redeeming elements of the film is the goat called Black Phillip. Throughout the story, I wondered if this massive beast was just a red herring or a harbinger of some later terror. Either would have been wonderful for the plot; when the answer was revealed, I was not disappointed, as the energy was in the ambiguity. Eggers knows how to create a monster. That is, perhaps, why the film’s ending was such a bitter letdown. It unraveled the beautiful delicacy of a psychological horror in one minute, and my fellow movie-goers groaned quite loudly as the screen went black one last time.
In the end, I have great respect for Eggers’ work. His cast was refreshing and accomplished, his set and costumes (with the exception of the witch) were gorgeous, and the score was near perfection. In every way it was an arthouse film. Its atmosphere, characters, and imagery left questions of feminism, power, and religion in my mind. The artistic decisions of Eggers and his crew are something worth witnessing, and the years of research Eggers put into the film are worth recognizing.
I recommend “The Witch” with some caution. It could be a fringe film but it falls into the territory of the conventional. Still, there is hope that “The Witch” will stir a movement for more arthouse films to make appearances in mainstream theaters. Robert Eggers said, “It’s extremely gratifying to get emails from teenagers [for whom] this is the first arthouse film they’ve seen, and it’s something special to them.”