Robert Eggers’ “New England folktale” The Witch is the most highly regarded horror film in years. It is so highly regarded that some critics who dismiss horror as mere shock and exploitation place The Witch outside the genre due to its thought-provoking artfulness. Ironically, on the opposite end of the spectrum, some horror fanatics, red of tooth and claw, also dispute the film’s horror bona fides, seeing its slow-burn moody virtues as pretentious and dull.
These days a number of movies and TV shows considered horror are really black comedies that counteract horrific elements of gore and threat with a knowing wink and cartoonish exaggeration that defang the dread. The Witch is the opposite: a brooding, patient, almost bloodless film about a family of seven banished to the edge of the wilderness in 1630 due to differences of religious doctrine. They are left to fend for themselves against the mounting terrors of isolation, the omnipresent existential threat of eternal damnation, and with nature itself seemingly aligned against them.
This isn’t the benign, nurturing Mother Nature of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Nature in The Witch is profoundly strange, mercurial, the dominion of Satan, his animal familiars and shadowy, wanton, apparently all-female minions. This is a nature aligned against the godly, testing of faith and resolve, with no comfort or distraction afforded by community. The towering figure of the father, William, remarkably embodied by Ralph Ineson, whose doctrinaire certainty is responsible for the family’s isolation, tries mightily to provide a foundation of routine and normality that would typically be reinforced by society. But as tragedy and mounting calamities unfold, undermining the family fabric and undoing his emotionally fragile wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), William’s faith is not enough and literally all hell breaks loose. Ultimately, oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is left to fend for herself in a shocking conclusion.
So is The Witch “horror”? Take a look at two definitions of “horror film,” first from Wikipedia: “Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears…. inspired by literature from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley.” And from AMC’s Filmsite, “Horror films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience.”
It is very clear that The Witch fits squarely within the horror genre – the second definition is a veritable synopsis of the film. The Witch invokes primal fears of an actively adversarial nature, of the implacability of evil, that blood might not be thicker than water, the monstrousness of unbridled female appetite, and that dark may be more powerful than light. That, my friends, is horror – horror that lingers and cannot be laughed off.
The Witch is available now on demand and on Blu-ray/DVD.