The Witch is strong on style and atmospherics, but the opportunity to draw on and exploit the terrors of religious zealotry, rather than those of the supernatural, is disappointingly passed up.
Going by the trailer, The Witch looked to be shaping up as the scariest horror flick since The Exorcist. If this is your expectation, prepare for a letdown. It’s spooky and unsettling rather than terrifying or horrific, evoking an unrelentingly dark atmosphere of grim foreboding that hangs over the characters (and cinema) like an evil fog. Truth to tell, the titular witch is far scarier when she is suggested (a rustle in the grass, the parting of bushes on the edge of the sinister wood that harbours her) than in the flesh. Sigh. But more on that directly.
The setting is New England circa 1630s (pre-dating the Salem witch trials). A community of Puritan settlers banishes one of their own, William (Ralph Ineson), from their community due to religious differences. Exiled with his family to the wilderness, he struggles to establish a homestead and small farm in a clearing abutted by a deep wood.
With their corn crop failing and only a few goats to milk, their situation is increasingly desperate, but William is devout and insists that God will provide. Then, in the most genuinely frightening scene of the movie, the youngest child, a baby boy, disappears while the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing with him. If only his disappearance was left as a mystery – alas, we get a look at his abductor. No prizes for guessing who it is.
The mother (Kate Dickie) is inconsolable (she does little but wail and shriek throughout), but she ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The goats’ milk turns bloody, Black Phillip the billy goat begins to look demonic, as do the two smallest kids who waddle around padded up in layers of clothing like a couple of weird dwarves, and there is a second family tragedy when elder son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) goes missing in the woods. The very air hums with supernatural implications.
Unfortunately, Caleb’s fate is directly revealed to us, along with the witch who seals it. Presumably she’s the same one who stole his baby bro, but now she’s shape-shifted into an irresistibly gorgeous siren with a collagen trout pout and a red cape. The only sign of her true physical appearance is a bony old hag’s arm that snakes around the poor lad as they kiss. Bang goes any intrigue that had built up around her.
Back at the homestead, the more interesting development of the family seeking a scapegoat from within plays out too quickly, and is undercut by the verification that there really is a witch in the woods. A far more interesting tale could have been constructed out of the culture of religious zealotry, paranoia and superstition in which they are immersed, where witches of the imagination might have assumed a reality infinitely darker and more terrifying than the one the filmmakers conjure up. Instead, a hapless member of the family who is accused of being a witch makes a ludicrous discovery about herself, culminating in a final scene that is, frankly, risible. I’d love to elaborate, but why should you get out of this so easily? You’ll have to see the film.
While the narrative takes a disappointing course, as a period piece (of sorts), The Witch is impressive. There is a strong sense of time and place. Who knows how close to the 17th century reality it is, but it feels authentic. Apparently much of the dialogue was lifted from texts of the time (the variation in English accents among the family members is a curious oversight). However well-researched, though, the Biblical, fairytale and occult imagery and symbolism is a bit of a mishmash, chucked in and strewn about to rather cliched effect.
All in all, this is a film of promise unrealised. The most meaningful and potentially terrifying aspect of the narrative setup – the role of religious zealotry in warping perception and corrupting those under its spell – is overlooked as the filmmakers settle on a supernatural resolution to their well-styled tale.
Movie website: thewitch-movie.com/
Australian release date: Thu 17 March (Luna Palace Cinemas)
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