‘The Witch’ Is Brilliant, Deeply Unsettling, And Kind Of Unpleasant

The Witch
is a film about a Puritan family who moves to an isolated homestead in colonial Massachusetts, 60 years before the Salem witch trials. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a horror film that could be described as “too real” before this, but The Witch certainly fits the bill, simultaneously a history major’s wet dream and an utter nightmare. It’s not just scary and creepy in the usual escapist way – it’s claustrophobic and inevitable, which is much more terrifying.

If it seems weird to call a witch movie “realistic,” I think a good analogy is Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is fantasy, sure, but more than that it feels like it creates fiction out of the way people of a period would’ve thought of their daily reality. Sorcerers and magic, yes, but if you were alive in the Middle Ages, the way you saw the world probably involved a certain amount of magic. Apply that to buckle-clad, witch-obsessed, 17th century zealots and you basically have the premise for The Witch. Except where Game of Thrones also attempts to be a sexy crowd pleaser — “adult Lord of the Rings with doggystyle f*cking,” as my friend Joe likes to say — The Witch goes to borderline psychotic lengths to recreate a nightmarish period, from the itchy wool costumes to the dialogue, which is rendered entirely in archaic English recreated from primary sources. Even the supernatural elements rely heavily on real worries of the time — superstition, spinsters, ergot madness. It exists in its own reality, where witches and sprites control the weather, while giving subtle hints at how science might explain them in our contemporary one.

The plot concerns a family led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), a typically humorless Puritan with a voice so low and growly he sounds like the guy Christian Bale was trying imitate as Batman. William has gotten his family banished from their colony over some esoteric debate over religious doctrine. (“You’ve committed the sin of pride!” he’s told, as you can imagine a religious court of the time telling anyone who dared speak up for themselves.) Our sympathetic stand-in is his teen daughter, Thomasin, stuck with her fanatic dad, a hysterical, shrew of a mother (played by Katie Dickie, previously Lysa in Game of Thrones, in yet another role that requires excessive breastfeeding), a pervy younger brother who’s taken notice of her budding breasts, and her two comically evil Children of the Corn-ready youngest sibling twins, the only people in the movie who ever seem to be having fun. Thanks to dad, they’re all left to try to scratch out a subsistence from moldy wheat and a forest that seems to steal life more than it gives it.

The period-appropriate dialogue is charming (“I love thee marvelous well, Caleb, but ye are too youngly!”), and the thees, thys, and thous bring a poetry to even the more mundane interactions, even as the characters themselves grow nearly unbearable. All that craft to make this bygone era come alive, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re stuck in an awful time period with some of its most awful people. A bunch of sexless, wool-clad fanatics living in humid, malarial wilderness trying to hack a living from an alien landscape, thinking the devil was hiding in every moldy wheat stalk and lady’s period, and a child might have to be sacrificed to appease the sky wizard — hey, no thanks! Well done though, I can practically feel the bug bites and ever-present religious paranoia!

This clan is truly a hard-luck crew; nothing much goes right for them. They shriek and pray and curse and dig in the dirt, and the mom and the twins are mean to Thomasin almost beyond reason. I can’t take away the fact that The Witch is a remarkable achievement, but it would’ve been a lot more bearable had the characters come alive as much as the setting. Thomasin is sympathetic, but also kind of a martyr, and the other characters are a little on the nose. William could scarcely be more of a stoic Protestant bucklehead, his wife more of a hectoring, hysterical shrew. The twins are the most successful, because their malevolence is balanced with a sense of glee. They’re also the only characters who are a bit eccentric. The other ones kind of feel like someone just saw a painting from the time and applied the emotion of the faces in that one image to every scene, without adding a ton of nuance or personality.

The Witch is at its best when it feels like someone is having fun, be it a character or the filmmakers. You can sense it any time they shoot “Black Phillip,” the family’s black billy goat who might be the devil. “Did ye make some unholy covenant with that goat?” screams William, in one of the film’s best lines. It’s at its worst when everyone’s screaming at the same time. The Witch does subtle creepiness, dread-inducing ambiguity, and quiet-scary – beautifully. Shrill-scary, not so much, and there’s too much of it. To the credit of writer/director Robert Eggers (who we interviewed here) the final scenes are some of its most subtle-scary, and he wraps it all up in a tight little package. (Kind of how you leave Black Swan going, “I get it, she was the black swan!”) Here, you leave remembering a lot of what he does right, like making a horror film that’s scary in the way of a Goya painting, or a gothic wood carving — literally dreadful — which is extraordinary.

Still, it’s not an experience that I’m in a hurry to relive. Coming out of the screening, a publicist asked what I thought of it. I said I was very impressed with it but didn’t enjoy it that much. “Is that good or bad?” she asked. (I suspect “good or bad” is all publicists ever really want to know, but sometimes I answer the question literally just for fun.) That’s a good question. I found The Witch impressive, immersive, unsettling, and deeply unpleasant, a seriously scary film that painstakingly put me in a world I didn’t like being in very much.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.