The Witch is as accurate as it is unsettling

the witch black phillip jonas mercy

This fall – inspired by the annual “Shocktober” theme at my favorite bad movie podcast – I proposed a program of horror movies to my wife.  I’m not really a horror fan at all, so I decided to stick to either classics or well-reviewed newer films to avoid torture porn, slasher films, and all the other things that have turned me off to the genre over the years.  The fact that I’m not a horror fan probably helped here, because The Witch is not your typical horror film.  Instead, it appears to have been custom made for me.

Set in the pre-Salem witch trial days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a family leaves the comfort of the village after a religious dispute.  They believe in a rather vicious strain of Calvinsim where everything is their fault, and even being good people can’t guarantee them a place in heaven.  While father William (Ralph Ineson) is a true believer, his other family members – especially mother Kate (Kate Dickie) and eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) – are less convinced.  Tensions soon boil over between husband and wife, mother and daughter, and their five children.  And that’s before stories about a witch in the woods and a talking goat named Black Phillip appear.

As I said, The Witch appealed to me on many different levels.  Where it’s most effective is in making clear how real the fear of devils, witches, and all the other creepy things that we see was to these people.  Historically, the film is extremely accurate.  The screenplay by writer/director Robert Eggers is cobbled together from contemporary diaries, sermons, and even witch trial records and spoken in a period dialect.  (If you’re a history nerd like I am, you might enjoy a short read about how frontier societies in the American colonies considered the wilderness, Indians, and the devil inextricably linked, or listen to 60 minutes of scholarly discussion about the Salem witch trials.)  Production designer Craig Lathrop and DOP Jarin Blaschke deserve credit as well for their contributions (and may have earned the right to call The Witch “The Revenant, Jr.” – as they joke – due to their remote location work and reliance on natural light).  When all these technical details are combined with long takes, it feels more like a documentary – or perhaps a historical reenactment – than a film and really puts you inside the mind of a 17th century colonist.

[SPOILER ALERT]

But just because The Witch was custom made for me doesn’t mean it’s custom made for everyone.  While I found the aforementioned combination engrossing, the others watching the film with me apparently found it HILARIOUS.  That’s too bad, because this movie requires some buy-in.  Not only its dialogue but also its plot is based on period accounts.  So if these people believe that the devil takes the form of a goat and asks young women to sign his book to become witches, the film believes it too and expects the viewer to take it seriously when it’s depicted as plot.  Unlike The Crucible, this isn’t a metaphor – witches aren’t communism or misogyny, they’re actual witches.

Still, Eggers manages to add some depth by suggesting it’s not completely coincidental that a family known for hell and brimstone religious fervor finds itself more vulnerable to evil, or that most of the tension accompanies Thomasin’s transition from girl to woman.  However, that depth, as well as the horror, is very much in the eye of the beholder.  While critical response to The Witch was overwhelmingly positive, some hardcore horror fans felt it shortchanged them on the horror – much like action fans felt films like Drive or The American shortchanged them on the action.  And my family aren’t the only ones guilty of inappropriate laughter.  Thus The Witch may represent the biggest difference of opinion over a film my wife and I have ever had.  Shocktober was already a hard sell, and this just makes it harder.

But at least it reassured me that horror movies aren’t blood and guts.  It even plays with the idea of a jump scare: a long static shot of the woods with ominous music cuts abruptly to one of the characters literally yelling “boo!”  Most impressively, the mood of the film lingers (even Stephen King, no slouch when it comes to horror, called it one of the scariest films he’d ever seen).  As for me, the proof came later.  The night after we watched The Witch, my daughter called for me and told me she was scared of . . . something.  It turned out to be a ploy to stay up later, but – I swear to god – if she would’ve mentioned Black Phillip I would’ve lost my mind.

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14 thoughts on “The Witch is as accurate as it is unsettling

  1. This is one of my favourite horror films! I seen this in the cinema twice each time with its own reaction from the audience. The first was at a premier in an art house cinema where everybody was audibly shocked and disturbed; the second was in a multiplex a few weeks later where the audience found the shocking bits hilarious…

    The ending still creeps me out too.

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    1. Definitely agree more with the guest crowd. I guess I assumed everyone was as engrossed as I was – that’s why I found the laughter so surprising.
      I loved the ending because it was such a non-fake out, like an anti-twist. “Did you think that the devil wasn’t real? He is!” But I think just the creepiness throughout got to me. Every time the twins sang Black Phillip’s song it got scarier.

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      1. It’s the music at the end that really gets me. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend you look into how the music was composed. It’s really interesting.

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