Horror movies with historical backdrops are incredibly rare. Those that do exist almost always fail bombastically. This is for several reasons. First and foremost, sets and costuming for any historical drama can cost money, and the budgets for such horror movies usually relegate the participants to looking like the props department did their shopping at a Party City. The second reason is that the characters are often way too modern—as if people like us were given a change of clothes and then dropped into the time period in question. The way we spoke, the way we looked, the way we did everything was radically different between then and now.
In comes The Witch, a horror movie set in 1630. This is a witchy folklore story set decades before the hysteria in Salem. It tells the dark, brooding tale of a family of six who is banished from the main village because of their estranged religious views and are forced to live on the outskirts of civilization: the wilderness. At first, they view this as divine providence. They have all the land they can ask for and quickly have a cabin and outbuildings constructed. The family’s harvest is not a large one, but they are surviving in this hard, rugged lifestyle made all the more rigid by their Puritanical religious views.
As I have studied in this era (I teach a class on witchcraft at Brookdale Community College), everything in the lives of these people was ruled by religion and prayer. Good things were a gift from God. Bad things were a sign of the devil. Witchcraft was used to lay blame on others for everything from a bad stalk of corn to illness and death. While we know that actual witchcraft (spells and witches flying on brooms) did not exist, this movie operates under the assumption they do. Scratch that, I should say this movie carries itself as if it were the product of a 1630’s mind. I read one review that said this movie was made for people of the time because it played on their darkest fears. I couldn’t have said it any better.
There are no jump scares here (literally, not a single one), but through imagination and brief, but vivid imagery, we can conjure up something horrible. We feel the struggle of this family in their day-to-day activities (chopping wood, farming, hunting). We see the dirt on their bodies from not washing. The tears and stains in their clothes. We can see the look in their eyes and know what they are feeling.
As it happens, one of their children goes missing. First a wolf is blamed, then witchcraft. The family dynamic begins to come undone as first the older sister is blamed of consorting with the devil and then she spins it around on her younger brother and sister. When one of the older brothers becomes afflicted with a mysterious illness, other family show sympathy pains and fits similar to the hysterics documented in Salem (spectral evidence). In showing us this aspect along with some actual scenes of supernatural happenings, director Robert Eggers plants doubts in our mind with what we see with our own eyes: there is the obvious hysteria and lies but we also see the paranormal. What is the cause of the evil tormenting this family? The ending, while slightly ambiguous, is at least an ending and one that satisfies enough that this does not get lumped in with the hundreds of horror movies I have seen in my life labeled, “good movie…until the ending”.
The scenery, for the most part, is colorless. The overcast skies seem to meld with the browns and dim greens of the family’s land and the forest which surrounds them. Nighttime scenes are lit by candlelight and the moon. I would say most of The Witch was done using entirely natural light. This too aids in the atmosphere as we feel as though we are in the 1600’s with the characters. If the atmosphere doesn’t do it, the accents and language used will. They speak with authentic dialogue (plenty of thees, thys, and dosts). To me, it never became too daunting since the dialogue is usually brief enough that you will never be lost.
The only (and I mean only) complaint I have is the sound. The music was sometimes so loud the room shook and in the next scene I could barely hear the characters speaking. Maybe there was something wrong with the coding on Netflix but I actually had to use subtitles for most of this film. Other than this minor aspect, I couldn’t find a single thing wrong with The Witch. I enjoyed it so much that I watched it a second time later that night because I wanted to take it all in. This is a beautiful film, one bereft of any Hollywood bullshit. This was a daring, gutsy movie to make with what today’s audiences are used to. No jump scares, no gratuitous sex, no excessive violence. No pandering to the masses who have the attention span of a dying gnat. Instead, this is an absolute masterpiece and one of the best horror movies of the last 25 years. 9 out of 10 stars.