Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Geek Previews: The Witch (2016)

Welcome to a new feature here at, Geek Previews (like the ol' Sneak Previews but way nerdier), where Michael Drinan (@mdrinan380) and I discuss a film we've both recently watched.  Could be something new and topical or something we're just now getting around to seeing.  

Today's movie of choice is Robert Eggers' debut The Witch, a period folktale set in 17th century Puritan New England about a family of settlers who are met with misfortune and insanity at the hands of a demonic witch.


Mike, what's your take on this film?  Talk to me.....

Mike: Ok, as a movie I loved it. It's one of the best period pieces I've seen in a long time. I loved the dialogue and how they stuck to the Olde English even though at times it was a little tedious understanding them. The film looks beautiful, using natural light and giving it a kind of gloom that you expect in a film like this. The acting was great. Anya Taylor-Joy was really good playing Thomasin and Ralph Ineson as William, her father, was just fantastic. He was a no-bullshit guy but there was tenderness toward his children and wife that he exuded brilliantly.

I love A24, the production company of this film. Everything they seem to come out with I love or at least really like. Whether its Room, Ex Machina, Obvious Child, Locke or Under the Skin....they've all been awesome and this one just adds to that list.

Now here's what bummed me out about the film. Ever since it was released it was billed as a terrifying film. That's the only thing I heard about it, even the quotes in the trailer talked about how it will "make your blood run cold" and I got amped for it because I rarely come across a film that scares me and I love films that can do that. That's where this movie fell flat for me. The IMDB trivia said that Stephen King was terrified by this film. The only things I found a little unnerving were some of the shots of Black Phillip and the utilization of off-screen sounds, like twigs breaking or something. Other than that, it was a really good film about religion and satanism, or what I presumed was satanism.

Justin: I loved it as a strong piece of filmmaking as well.  The natural lighting, the diffused colors, the location and sets, everything contributed to the bleak atmosphere and the underlying sense of dread.  Anya Taylor-Joy announced herself as a future major star I think.  At 20 years old she already has a commanding onscreen presence, even in an unassuming role like this one.  Ralph Ineson felt totally authentic, conveying gruffness but also the air of a man who slowly realizes he isn't in control and can't care for his family like he thought.  I found Kate Dickie's performance very compelling as well, as her character goes from hysterical mourning to being resentful and domineering.

I tell ya - Room, Ex Machina, Locke, and now The Witch?  A24 already boasts one helluva filmography.

I didn't get swept up in the hype of The Witch as a supremely terrifying film, so my expectations were not for a movie that would scare the bejeezus out of me (I honestly can't remember the last time a movie truly scared me - The Descent was probably the last one).  Instead, based on the one trailer I saw, I expected a very well-made period piece with great atmosphere that psychologically toys with its audience.  And that's exactly what The Witch excels at.  Unlike most modern horror films, The Witch doesn't rely on gross-out moments or tension-releasing jump-scares.  It slowly builds unease by showing us the incremental dissolution of this family unit, much as The Shining did 35 years ago.  I found this film very old-school in that respect, and the pacing and some of the shot composition reminded me of Kubrick's approach to horror.  There's even a moment when the ancient antagonist disguises herself as a young woman to lure one of the children to her, which immediately brought to mind Jack Nicholson and the naked woman in the tub.  Also the witch's laugh sounded a lot like the bathtub lady, and the witches' chanting at the end made me think of the ghostly incantation we hear late in The Shining as Wendy searches the hotel for Danny.  Anyway, for me this type of horror is far more engaging than the usual tropes we've all gotten so used to.   The Witch is one of those horror films that burrows into your brain and stays with you for days - it's more a conceptual horror than a visceral one.  These are the kinds of horror movies I find myself drawn to year after year.

The director Robert Eggers' next film is apparently going to be a Nosferatu remake.  When I first heard about this I groaned, but after seeing The Witch, I can't wait to see what he does with that material.

Mike: I certainly fell into the trap of it being that kind of horror film based on the trailers. Like you, I did find the dissolution of the family to be rather interesting and Kate Dickie was great. The range of emotion her character goes through and how she had a firm handle on it as an actor was incredible. There was resentment, guilt, grief, confusion, doubt and just all out mad. It was perfect.

The Shining is a perfect example of the kind of horror movie I was expecting, a more visual horror movie. Not in terms of blood, violence and gore or even those loud jump scares, but one that consisted of disturbing images that appear and make you uncomfortable. The famous image of the twin girls just standing in the hallway in The Shining creeps everyone the fuck out and it's brilliant, that's what I was hoping for in The Witch. It has those moments but they're used sparingly. Every time I saw the bunny sitting there I tightened up like "Oh shit, that bunny is fucked up. It's going to kill someone." That fantastic shot of Thomasin playing peek-a-boo with the baby before the baby just disappears I thought was good. But overall, I thought it could've done more to increase the tension. The woman in the woods luring the young boy captivated me as well mainly because I knew he was a goner at that point but it was at the beginning of that scene where all you saw was her leg step into the doorway that gave me a little shiver because I didn't know what that was before she appeared. I could've used more of those types of visual scares.

A24 does have a great filmography and its only going to get better this year with Free Fire, Trespass Against Us with your boy Fassbender, 20th Century Women and the big one is going to be Moonlight. They have such an eclectic mix of films its hard not to keep track of them.

Justin: The haunting images are used very sparingly, that's true.  But they were quite effective when they did appear.  The first appearance of the witch in her hut, smearing the baby's blood all over herself?  That's pretty fucked up shit right there.  The later scene where Kate Dickie hallucinates breastfeeding and it turns out to be a crow pecking at her nipple?  Quite disturbing.

Plus the setting itself is so desolate and cruel.  These settlers had to set up shop from scratch in the middle of nowhere and somehow keep themselves warm and fed.  That alone makes for such a richly horrifying locale for this film.  At any time a bear could show up and maul your whole clan.  Just ask Leo.

Oh, about the Olde English - the first time I watched this I literally could not understand what they were saying.  Ralph Ineson's voice is so low and gravely his dialogue would've been tough to make out anyway.  I actually used the subtitles on the first viewing.  The second time I was okay without them because I was ready for the old-style language.

Mike: Man, I forgot about the crow scene. Yeah, that was terrifying with the laughter.

There isn't a sense of relief throughout the whole film, which is its strength. Everything is a struggle. Fitting into the community, getting booted from said community, religious interpretation, familial roles and responsibilities and of course, death. The struggle is interesting to watch, especially in the characters. There's a breaking point of some sort and it's great to watch. A bear would've been perfect!

Speaking of animals, the use of the animals was fantastic, especially the hare. It would pop up in unexpected places and I would wait for the onslaught of terror. It never came but this served the purpose of luring the children and maintaining that dark, shadowy presence that is Black Phillip, the goat. The reveal at the end was well done, it didn't show him beyond his hand, and the whispering really added to the tension that you (the audience) were waiting for. Spielberg was a master of off-camera horror, allowing the audience to interpret or imagine for themselves what was off the screen. You don't see it, but you know something is there. It was very well done.

Again, the movie was really good and done very well. The director took a simplistic approach, doubled down on the characters and story development and didn't overdo it. To me, the "scary" moments did feel a little reined in and it caused me not to be scared, but it was still a solid flick.

Justin: Also intriguing was the theme of women's role in society and the pressures imposed upon them, particularly in the 17th century.  Tomasin's parents want to basically rent her out to another family because she's hit puberty and her simply being around makes her own family members uncomfortable.  This society was so repressed that the presence of a young woman entering sexual maturity put everyone on edge.  At the end of course she embraces her sexuality and becomes exactly what puritan culture expects: a witch.

This film's restraint reminded me a little of another very well-made recent horror film, The Babadook, where the horror is mostly suggested and the tension exists primarily between the characters.  It's all setup and the payoff is minimal, but in a good way.  You're left with strong performances, some haunting imagery, and an unpleasant feeling, but it isn't a scare-fest in the traditional Hollywood sense.

For me, while I wouldn't really call The Witch a "scary" film, it was endlessly fascinating and superbly atmospheric, and like The Shining, The Exorcist, and some of the old Universal Monsters films, will almost certainly be an annual Halloween tradition going forward.

Final Ratings

Mike: ***1/2 - Even though I didn't find it terrifying or scary it's still a very well-made film with some moments that will give you goosebumps. Should definitely make its way into some traditional Halloween movie marathons.

Justin: ***1/2 - I was tremendously impressed with Eggers' command of the material and look forward to seeing his upcoming work.

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