Between The Forest, The Boy, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the horror landscape of early 2016 has been a horrorshow of its own. HYUK. HYUK. HYUK. When are we going to start getting scary movies again? Is 2016 all cheap jump scares and dumb plot twists and Pajiba faves slumming it in C-grade, VOD shit?
Enter The Witch.
If you’ve been keeping up with movie buzz, you might have heard that The Witch—about a family of pilgrims who moves to the outskirts of a forest where, surprise, there’s a witch!—is the most pants-shittingly scary thing to hit theatres since… well, since 50 Shades of Black, which was scary for different reasons, i.e. “it got made.” BUT. A few segments aside, I found The Witch less “scary” than “unsettling and creepy to the Nth degree”…. which is still good! But this, like It Follows (TL;DR—“…good, I guess?”), is one where I wish my expectations hadn’t been so high going in. (At times I wish I were able to step back from the industry hype machine, but there is the little thing called My Job.)
But my expectations aren’t the fault of Eggers, who managed to craft a slow-burning, utterly immersive, claustrophobic, chilling little number that sets itself apart from the majority of the contemporary horror landscape by how unabashedly arthouse-y it is. The characters speak in Jacobean English, for fuck’s sake. In going super-traditional in terms of story, Eggers has crafted a horror film that’s anything but, at least compared to the quick-n-cheap (and occasionally surprisingly good!) horror films that saturate much of the current marketplace. There is no levity in The Witch. You will not laugh. You might pee yourself a little. The jump scare, aka the favored tool of horror directors who don’t actually know what they’re doing, is used sparingly and well—most of the horror comes less from ZOMG THERE WAS A LOUD NOISE than the real-world fears of English families who packed up their belongings to move out to Bumfuck, Nowhere, aka colonial America. Like, for example: The isolation, the very real possibility of starving to death, and—for Thomasin, the family’s eldest daughter—the extremely limited options afforded to women in that time period. (Not to get into it too much, because [VAGUE SPOILERS], but there is a feminist reading of The Witch that I find extremely interesting. The fear of the witch is, in a way, a fear of women; witches may murder and maim, but historically it was one of the few career paths available to women who wanted to live a life independent of THE MAN. Not that Satan is not the ultimate THE MAN himself. OK, putting away the crystals and incense. The Witch is dripping with anxiety, if not the out-and-out terror of more straightforward horror offerings The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy.
Ultimately, The Witch isn’t for everyone. I can see finding it dull and not-scary, even if I don’t feel the same, and those who like their horror movies fun ought to look elsewhere. Still, Eggers has unquestionable talent. And we get a horror movie with Jeremy Sisto and Sarah Wayne Callies three weeks from now, so enjoy the uptick in quality while it lasts.