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The Witch (2016)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE WITCH (2016)

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger

Written and Directed By: Robert Eggers

The Shot

Deliberately paced, old fashioned creepy horror makes its way back to the big screen.  Some might not have the patience, but for those who do, The Witch is worth one look despite its flaws.

The Highball

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Either you’re into it or you can’t stand it; there’s no real middle ground here.

Pairs Well With...


Because, well… y’know.

“Love thee prayer?”

The Witch is a movie out of time, and I’m not just referring to its setting in 1630 Massachusetts.  This is the sort of horror flick that hasn’t been commonly made in decades: slow, deliberate, dripping with atmosphere despite the challenges of a small budget, and punctuated by only a few short, sharp shocks to break up the almost agonizing pace, capped off by a bizarre ending that comes straight out of left field. 

It’s the kind of thing that studios that wanted to be like American International Pictures but couldn’t afford Vincent Price or Roger Corman used to churn out by the truckload… but just wee bit craftier and spotted with just a wee bit more blood.

Whether or not that makes for riveting entertainment depends entirely upon the viewer’s patience and ability to simply drop into the story without thinking too much about it as it happens.  The first part is easy enough for anyone (such as myself) who enjoys old school color era low-to-mid budget horror flicks.  The second part is way harder than it should be.

Let’s start with the good stuff.  The Witch is an absolute triumph when it comes to tone and atmosphere.  If there was an Academy Award for atmosphere, this flick would have that Oscar hands down.  Using its limited budget as an advantage rather than as a liability, The Witch is sparse, bleak, and loaded with isolationistic creepiness.  There is no hope to be found in music or ambient sound; no happiness from chirping birds or upbeat melodies.  The camera is allowed to let clouds and dead wood do their thing.  Few audiences can be expected to recognize the antiquated aspect ratio, but it none the less adds to the old school feel, and the attention paid to period details is impeccable.  You want to set a horrific stage in the deep woods of Old World New England?  The Witch provides a master class on how it’s done.

So far, so spectacular.  Then we get to the story.

Our setup is simple: an extremely pious man shuns the organized church of his community, and takes his family into exile in the lonely woods.  (That’s right: he’s too Puritan for the Puritans.)  Bad things start to happen, and the family begins to wonder if a witch might be the cause of all of their troubles.  No further complexity required.  Except…

Except that at the very beginning, writer/director Robert Eggers blatantly invites the audience to decide whether or not there really is a witch out there in the woods, or if perhaps one or several members of the family is/are delusional through the lens of devout fervor.  Had the entire movie walked this tightrope of maybe so/maybe no – or least taken the speculation up to the point of the story’s climax – I can only imagine that experience would have been phenomenal.  (Indeed, it is very easy to spend the first little while of the film – trust me, you will lose track of time, unless you’re the sort who gets bored with deliberate pacing, in which case you’ll be visiting your watch often – deciding that the family has brought and continues to bring of all of its problems on itself.)  But then Eggers switches gears and eliminates the mystery (early enough that I don’t consider it to be a spoiler, especially if you’ve seen the trailer).  Sure, the atmospherics still allow the story to work, but if you’d already started to take an analytical approach to the picture, a lot of wind comes out of the sails at the point.

Once the mystery’s gone, all that’s left is to coast along with the exceptionally bleak ride until it’s time for the 1970s acid trip of an ending to show up, and that… well, much like the rest of The Witch, that will either work for you or it won’t.  There’s really no middle ground to tread here. 

As for myself, I’m willing to accept it… once.  As a fan of the deliberately filmed old school, I enjoyed The Witch for what it is, for certain values of enjoyment.  (I don’t think this flick is anyone’s idea of a party, per se; a romp at Camp Crystal Lake it isn’t.  But it does work as a more intense brand of fun for the right crowd.)  However, I doubt that I’ll be visiting this particular patch of 1630 Massachusetts again without some very compelling persuasion.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2016

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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