By Amber Broyles
Horror films are a tricky thing. They teeter on the edge of thriller and terror. Some get muddled on either end of the spectrum while others gracefully embrace a bit of both. Either a film gets under your skin or it doesn’t. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it. Horror films do well to build tension and twist it into terror. Pacing is key. Plus, a great villain or monster never hurts.
The Witch is a film written and directed by Robert Eggers. It focuses on a puritanical family that is banished from their colony. They have no choice but to start their own farm far from the safety and security of society. The family is made up of a father, William (Ralph Ineson), a mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), a daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a set of twins, and an infant. The land is harsh and hard to settle. However, the story is kicked off by a force in the forest taking the infant. Not really a spoiler, it’s the Witch.
I’m really excited to see this film again; alone, in the dark, at three a.m. Well, maybe not at three a.m. but you get my point. That’s the best way to ingest it. You need a deprivation of senses to wholeheartedly focus on what you’re seeing. To help you absorb the silence. To help you absorb the wide impersonal angles. Everything in this film is so cold and sterile. The formal language eliminates any sense of intimacy between family members and most scenes are drenched in cool colors. All of these elements lead to a sense of alienation.
On top of all this, I see a symbolic use of sin. I don’t know if this was intentional or me reading too much into it. Nevertheless, I can hope. The father, William, represents pride in every sense of the word. Even when his family is starving and his youngest child is taken he refuses to return to society. He won’t admit he’s wrong until it’s too late. The mother, Katherine, represents wrath. She berates Thomasin for every little thing and the moment Thomasin is accused of witchcraft she believes. In her eyes, her daughter deserves to be punished for everything. The son, Caleb, represents lust. There’s many long lingering glances at Thomasin’s chest. I get he’s alone on a farm with his family. Still, holy shit, kid! She’s your sister. Last but not least, based on puritanical hierarchy, Thomasin, would be considered sinful for defying her parents and especially her father. This family, despite their faith, is riddled with sin. Breakdown was inevitable.
Still, this film isn’t perfect. Traditionally, the first twenty minutes are used to establish the issues that will arise later in the film. Then the catalyst hits and the downfall begins. About five minutes in the catalyst happens without establishing any seeds for future collapse. Now, I’m not saying a story has to follow this rule beat by beat. I’ve seen plenty of films where the catalyst happens early on but they still use the moments before it to establish the characters and their flaws. Even the smallest seeds would amp up the tension.
I can’t help but think of Blue Ruin, a subtle thriller from 2014. It’s about a man that seeks revenge for the murder of his parents. In the first couple minutes the catalyst occurs. However, this film establishes its main character. The first image we see of him, he’s sleeping in an old broken down car. He dons a scraggly society-has-forgotten-him-beard or he’s-forgotten-society-beard. In those first few minutes we know everything we need to. He’s homeless. He’s been so for a while and he has very, very poor social skills. He’s an outsider.
The audience has to know there’s something wrong with the family even if the characters don’t realize it yet. Their denial is what establishes the tension. There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing the cracks before a character does. It seems like a waste of time to completely ignore a first act then try and cram what a first act should do into the second one. It muddles the pacing and confuses the tones. I think of this movie as a meaty sandwich with thin slices of flimsy bread encapsulating it.
Again, I think of Blue Ruin. The first act lasts maybe two three minutes tops. The third act is maybe ten minutes in all. Still, I walked away feeling satisfied. This was due to the fact that I knew who the main character was and he’s flaws before the catalyst. The beginning set up the end. In those few beginnings shots they established his drifter nature. Drifters don’t win. Try as they may to belong, they get everything wrong. Spoiler free, it doesn’t end well. The slices are thin but they’re not flimsy.
Despite all this, The Witch sets a precedent. In a time full of Paranormal Activities and found footage it’s refreshing to see a horror film that relies on something other than loud noises and jump scares. Regardless of my issue, it’s great to see an original horror film get such rave reviews. It gives me hope for the future of the horror genre. Maybe general audiences are maturing? Maybe they realize there’s real horror out there? Maybe jump scares will be a relic of the past? Probably not, but we can hope. Fingers crossed.
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