Robert Eggers’ The Witch is some next level shit—it’s the kind of horror that sneaks up on you, stretching its long and decrepit fingers out of the shadows and right under your skin. It’s masterful in its tension building, crafting and molding its atmosphere into a wicked brand of horror that very few films achieve—simply put, The Witch is built from a foundation of horror that’s earned, not forced, squeezing every ounce of terror from its narrative. In it, a family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
You’d be hard pressed to talk about The Witch without mentioning its absolute monster of an atmosphere, which is the true star of Eggers’ brilliant little film. He does this simply by establishing a sense of dread from the very beginning, and it maintains its ability to rip your nerves apart until the film’s final, haunting frame. That said, the film is a bit of a crawl—a lot of people are going to struggle with how slow the story moves along—but if you dig any of Ben Wheatley’s stuff (namely Kill List) then you’re going to love this movie, simple as that.
From the moment the movie starts, it’s apparent that Eggers wants you to feel uneasy every step of the way—he does this by ending nearly every scene with some sort of holy shit moment; it’s a tactic that can frustrate some because not every one of those moments has any real payoff… it just kind of leaves the audience hanging by a thread, waiting for something to happen. That, however, is one of my favorite things about The Witch because it amplifies the horror of the movie, and the patience is rewarded with some of the most unsettling imagery of any film this year.
So much of the film is surrounded by silence, letting you squirm in every empty second, making the soundtrack that much more powerful. Because when the horror of The Witch arrives, so does the score—it’s as disorienting as it is haunting, blaring in the background as the wicked woods come to life and evil comes pouring out. And it’s that tandem of unnerving silence being met with a loud, soul-shaking score that makes the atmosphere of the film feel so potent and eerie. There’s that word again: atmosphere. Like I wrote above, it’s hard to talk about this movie without mentioning the world in which Eggers has created—it’s mean, unrelenting, and most of all, scary as hell. But it’s not scary in the traditional sense; there are really only a handful of truly creepy scenes, but they’re so perfectly placed in the narrative—evolving from precise tension and slow build up—that makes it all work so well.
My only real complaint about the movie was the Old English dialog. Entire scenes would go by where I didn’t understand much of what the characters were saying. Like, what did this dude just sayeth? Because of that, some of the plot got lost in translation for me. But all in all, The Witch is a gnarly, slow-burning nightmare that begs for multiple viewings in order to dig through all of its layers and symbology—we could talk about Black Phillip alone for days. It’s filmmaking at its very best, bringing torment and angst to the screen in horrifying fashion.