The Witch is a story that is almost impossible to modernize, but that doesn’t mean a dozen other films haven’t tried anyway. Slasher flicks in which naive city-folk venture out into—and soon fall victim to—the wilderness require a sizeable suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Thankfully, questions like, “why don’t they just leave?” or “Shouldn’t they call the police?” are quickly dismissed by The Witch, on account of its setting and time period.
An early 1600s New England family is banished from their colony and opts to move into the wood, where they believe they can make a home for themselves. They’re a devotional lot, incessantly reciting scripture, and often begging for God’s forgiveness in their time alone. The wood proves too much for them, however, as they are soon plagued by ungodly trials and gripping paranoia.
The film begins with a title-card claiming it as a “New England Folk-Tale.” This is an apt description considering the dialogue between the family members, which doesn’t exactly sound natural. In fact, much of the dialogue was plucked from the literature of the time period, creating, for the children at least, lines that come off as uncharacteristically articulate. Despite this, the family feels deeply human, an impressive feat considering their strict faith. It is these human aspects which help make the movie so disturbing. When the father allows his wife to berate their daughter for his own wrongdoings, we feel disgusted. When the camera gives us a POV shot of a young boy eyeing his sister’s chest, it puts the audience into a deeply uncomfortable position. We understand his torturous thoughts without being told them, and that unspoken connection lets us in on a very personal kind of guilt.
The Witch is at its strongest when the family is at each other’s throats. We feel the gripping paranoia which drives them, which causes them to lash out at one another. Accusations of curses, witchcraft and sinful acts pass freely between them. Which is why it’s strange that the movie decides to spoil this element of mystery for its audience. To my surprise, the titular antagonist is clearly visible in the first act. An unsightly old woman with wispy hair convulses in her decrepit cabin, cackling as she covers herself in an infant’s blood. In a less talented filmmaker’s hands, it might have been comical. In The Witch it’s simply depraved.
The Witch strikes an impressive balance. It’s practically blasphemous without feeling sacrilegious. While its characters suffer, it never feels gleefully sadistic. The whole thing is paced so excellently as to feel like a slow yet engaging descent into despair.
For all its noteworthy positives, The Witch has but one serious strike against it: a conclusion that becomes much too explicit and drags on far too long. Several times I thought the film was over when another scene would begin. I witnessed this reluctantly, as the evil that plagued the family lost more and more of its mystery as the minutes accrued.
Besides this flaw, I would still strongly recommend the film to horror enthusiasts. Laden with graphic imagery and satanic symbolism, The Witch captures brilliantly the horrors of isolation, guilt and the godless wilderness.