When it comes to horror films released out into the wild to mainstream American audiences, we’ve become accustomed to many things the last few years. Loud booming scores and sounds meant more to startle viewers than to accompany the film, flashy jump scares, breakneck pacing, and an overall feeling of sameness saturate most horror films in cinemas these days. Occasionally we get something a little different in the case of It Follows; but even more rare is a movie that can leave you so unsettled you wont be able to shake the thought of it for the next week or so. The Witch is that kind of film.
The Movie – 5/5
The Witch is a film that certainly isn’t for everyone; in fact, I saw this movie first showing on opening night and the theater had about 20 people, 5 of which left in the first 20 minutes. These people didn’t walk out because they were shocked or disturbed at what they were seeing on the screen; they walked out because this movie wasn’t made for them. The real treat about The Witch isn’t that it is a fantastic horror movie; it’s also one of the best period pieces I’ve ever seen. From the Old English used by the characters to the attention to detail in their clothing and homestead, first time feature director Robert Eggers has not only created a wonderfully eerie film but a historically accurate one as well.
Our dreadful tale begins in New England, the year 1630, with William; (Ralph Ineson) a husband, father of 4, and a devout Christian man and his family being exiled from his Puritan community. William relocates his family to the edge of an eerie forest and attempts to build a homestead there; his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) soon gives birth to their 5th child, Samuel. One day as their oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Tayor-Joy) is playing peekaboo with baby Samuel, he disappears in the blink of an eye. With a devastated new mother, scarcity of food, tensions rising in the family, and an unthinkable evil lurking in the woods, we the audience are in for one hell of a miserable time as we watch the lives of this family spin helplessly out of control.
The Witch is a simple film, built not on the in your face scares and shock we’re used to, but tension, atmosphere, and its ability to mesmerize you. You will want to look away from The Witch but it won’t allow you. The feeling of dread only intensifies as the film progresses. It’s an incredible slow burner, winding us up so tight and never giving us a chance for a release of that tension before its all over and we are left mouth agape. It’s a film that sticks with you and makes you ponder what you witnessed. You may be left unsatisfied at the finale, but that might be the point. If you’re a true horror fan this is a journey that is well worth enduring.
What puts The Witch far and above most films in the horror genre is that it’s such an elegantly made film. It’s beautiful to look at in all its washed out dreary glory. It also comes packed with powerful performances from the entire cast, (including creepy animals like Black Philip, the most terrifying goat you’ll ever see on screen), and an absolutely haunting score. It’s a movie that is hard to talk about beyond the basic events that set the story in motion because I don’t want to give anything away. The Witch needs to be experienced on its own terms, not through the words of an innocent bystander like myself.
The Picture – 4/5
While The Witch certainly wont be blowing anyone away with its picture quality, it is totally effective for this movie. The picture is of course very clear and crisp, but it certainly lacks much of a color palette; this is a movie that looks as dreary as it feels. The picture may even come off as a little muddled from time to time. This may be intentional, or could just be the downside from being shot digitally rather than on film (holy shit would this movie be even better on film). The browns, blacks, and grays that make up what we see on screen are washed out, giving the movie a look as bleak as the homestead our characters live on. It’s certainly not colorful or pretty to look at, but that’s the whole point. What is presented to us on screen is deadly effective for the story that is being told. It’s not a movie to show off how pretty your TV can be; it’s a movie made to scare and chill you to the bone. That’s exactly what we get on screen here with some of the images cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (Babygirl) has cooked up for us. The Witch is a beautifully shot but horrifyingly ugly movie and that’s exactly what it needed to be.
The Sound – 5/5
This is where The Witch truly shines in terms of its presentation. The subtle sound design used here is stellar. The Witch is a quiet movie overall; lots of moments of silence or ambiance move the story forward. What really pulls everything in The Witch together is one of the creepiest scores I’ve heard in a long time, courtesy of Mark Korven (Cube). Korven’s chilling score kicks on and off in all the right places with excellent use of strings and drums to ratchet up the tension for some terrifying results. In horror movies the use of a good score can make all the difference when it comes to crafting an effective experience for your audience. The Witch fires on all cylinders in this regard, and sounds even better when the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is put to use on a good sound system. Your living room will feel like it was dropped right into the evil woods.
The Features & Packaging – 2.5/5
The biggest disappointment with this release is everything other than the movie. Lionsgate has offered up the bare bones package for this release, as they typically do. We get the basic Blu-ray case with recyclable cut out and digital HD insert. The art of Black Philip used on the slipcover and sleeve are pretty nice but no art on the disc itself other than the film title is always disappointing. Canada received a beautiful steelbook edition of the film that is totally worth importing if you want the best version of this available (it also includes a DVD while the US release only comes with the Blu-ray).
Those looking for some in-depth special features on the making of the film may be a bit disappointed (much like myself). The directors commentary with Robert Eggers is the most informative and interesting special feature we get here, and gives a lot of insight on the creation process of the film and painstaking detail that went into creating 1600’s New England. Also included on the disc is an 8 minute featurette, “The Witch: A Primal Folktale” with cast and crew interviews that ends before it ever even gets going. There is also a Q&A panel from The Witch‘s premiere in Salem with actress Anya Tayor-Joy, director Robert Eggers, and a few historians specializing in the time period represented in The Witch. This is a nice addition to have, but a more in depth featurette on the design process would have been much more welcome. A gallery of designs and sketches is also included that round out the package.
The Technical Stuff:
English DTS-HD Master Audio
1 Region A Blu-ray Disc
The Verdict – 4/5
As much as I’d like give this release a perfect 5/5 for how good the film itself is, the real lack of features and super basic packaging really detract from what could of been an even better release for such a well done movie. Lionsgate distributes some great movies, but they need to put a little more effort into the releases themselves. The Witch is a prime example of that. Overall though, I would absolutely recommend this to any horror fan who’s grown tired of what is getting pumped out into American cinemas. The Witch is the exact opposite of a date movie or the typical haunted house movie we’ve come to expect: it’s grueling experience in terror wrapped up in an Oscar worthy period piece with immaculate attention to detail. The Witch demands the attention of horror fans the world over and it is a film that truly must be seen to be fully understood or appreciated.