I waited in anticipation for The Witch. I don’t know what to liken the anticipation to, except to say that it must be a milder version of the excitement I felt for major holidays when I was younger. Maybe I was almost as excited to see The Witch as I was for the second half of season six of The Walking Dead to arrive. I mean, come on, a horror film that won “Best Director” at the Sundance film festival? How rare that someone manages to combine truly artistic, original filmmaking with the horror genre. And then there’s that trailer that appeared in the theaters and online, in which a girl is playing peek-a-boo with a baby, only to open her eyes and find that the baby has disappeared. Good film-making. Witches. Disappearing babies. What else could a self-avowed horror addict request?
Here’s the thing: by and large the film met my expectations; it surges forth with passionate intensity, even when it’s not scary. When it’s not overwhelmingly terrifying, we’re trapped in an interesting if not awkward puritanical soap opera, so rife with “thee’s” “thy’s,” thick accents and the other accoutrements of New England dialect, that the watcher must be very careful, lest she miss one bit of what’s being said between the characters. I am notably terrible at deciphering accents, so understanding the plot of the film was a difficult but by and large doable endeavor for me. On the whole, despite my struggle, I enjoyed the authenticity of the speech; the watcher feels very much in the time period.
What’s intriguing about “The Witch,” among many things, is how the supernatural or the basely evil turns person against person. As is true, I think, of many societies in different times and places, the presence of unknown, untraceable evil in The Witch makes everyone paranoid and mistrustful of those they’re closest to; in this way, evil wreaks havoc on the psyche of an entire family in this film. Most discomfortingly, the parents often seem the most unbalanced characters in the story. Don’t expect a consistent series of breathless moments and startles; when the story’s not overtly scary, it’s dark, intriguing, and dramatic, but when it’s frightening it’s downright petrifying. Horror in this film is calculated and timed to switch on at the right moments.
That said, I was hoping to be more consistently frightened throughout the film. Still, its depiction of unbridled evil is unsettling. Despite the presence of the piece-titled witch, one senses, early on, an evil force with an agenda, assiduously revealing its plan throughout the piece. Unsettlingly for the Puritans in this film, who turn so ardently to God, God seems nowhere to be found, almost to an alarming degree. One family’s attempt at piety and prayer turns into no less than an entourage of frightening, unholy events, assuring us that those crazy relatives of Nathaniel Hawthorne who were so afraid of the forest weren’t so out of whack after all. The forest, indeed, beholds many frightening components in The Witch, although evil is to be found everywhere in the film, and evil is consistently in command. Sparks of good flare up, but are extinguished quickly.
I can say I highly endorse The Witch, because it’s an intelligent film and it merits a revisit. I live in a town that doesn’t have much a taste for artistic cinema, so I imagine it will be leaving our theater quickly, and I’d like to see it again before it goes. I just can’t stop thinking of character reactions in the film. Funny, how human beings can become so dismantled by evil that they start blaming the wrong people. When William blames his daughter Thomasin for the evils that befalls his family, it’s almost like, well, like when we blame the entire Syrian refugee community for the actions of one terrorist enclave, or when we proclaim no people of a particular faith should be allowed into our country (ahem, Muslims) because there are a few terrorists in the world who happen to be Muslim. The Witch, in that sense, is highly relevant to contemporary life, because it goes beyond a study of evil: it is also a study of the fear evil creates, and how human beings react to that fear. Most importantly, it proclaims that fear blinds us to realities, makes us paranoid, and sets us against one-another.