Have you noticed that since 2014, we’ve had a new annual tradition where an independent horror film comes out with not much fanfare then ends up terrifying us all? Back in 2014 The Babadook was released and shocked everyone with how good it was. Heck, the director of The Exorcist actually said it was his favorite horror film ever. That’s high praise indeed. Then last year we had It Follows, a film I had some problems with but was incredibly scary with just a simple conceit. Well this year the film trying to be the independent horror of the year is The Witch but can it live up to the new horror classics?
In 17th century New England, William (Ralph Ineson, Kingsman: The Secret Service) is banished with his family from a puritanical town for his pride. However life on their farm deep in the woods starts to become unnerving when his baby son disappears while playing with his daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, Viking Quest).
We might as well get the biggest question out of the way to begin with, is this film actually scary? The answer is quite simply, yes, it’s very scary. This to begin with is all down to the atmosphere. You’ll quickly notice that all the colour is drained out of the shots and as a note to Zak Snyder, this is when you are supposed to do that. The effect of it is that you are instantly drawn into a sullen mood, a world where nothing joyful is going to happen and that the only thing that happen to this family are bad things. This is one of the best films I’ve seen for just pure atmosphere because it creates the terrifying mood almost instantly through the camera work and use of colour, or lack there of it.
That said, the atmosphere may be more down to the score which is excellent. The film tends to use screeching string instruments as well as a haunting voice and both work brilliantly. The screeching strings are simply terrifying, they are so loud and create such a feeling of unwell it is likely to cause panic attacks in the more nervous of viewers. And while a wailing voice is rather clichéd, I don’t think it has ever been used better than it is in this film. Any time the sound starts, it sends a shiver down your spine and you are begging for it to stop, but in the way that horror films are meant to do.
The reason the sound is so effective though is because the director Robert Eggers (First Feature Film) knows exactly when to use it. You see for the majority of the movie, there is no soundtrack. Heck, you barely hear the noises of the wilderness. You just hear the characters talking and the sounds of the animals on the farm, more things to suck you into this world. But that means when Eggers decides he is going to ramp up the sound, it is going to have a massive effect. It’s a simple directorial trick but it works because by using the terrifying sound on only a few occasions, it has much more of an effect on the viewer.
And you can argue that’s what Eggers does with the title character as well as the witch doesn’t actually appear that much. She’s in this film less than Godzilla was in that Godzilla film! However not only does have the same effect as the sound meaning when you do get a glimpse of her it’s terrifying, but it also means the true horror comes from the family going to war with each other. In a weird way, this film is a paranoia thriller as the truly scary scenes come from when the family are accusing each other of being the witch and cursing the rest of them. Seeing people turn against each like what happens is traumatic on an emotion level as well scaring the pants off of you.
This is where I usually try to nitpick something just to try and show some balance but I’m struggling because this film is so well done. Despite the fact that most of the cast are children, they all act very well and are only annoying when they are meant to be annoying. The film never relies on cheap jump scares, though at points the film racks up so much tension the jump scare would have actually been worth it. Really the only complaint I have is that the film is very short and I was disappointed when it ended but when I’m complaining that I all I wanted from this film is more of it, that’s a damned good nitpick to have.
With Hollywood’s horror films being an endless cycle of sequels, found footage and jump scares, we need the independent scene to take up the slack. And The Witch continues this fine trend of the small budget guys showing those in California how you do it. This film has a rawness to it not many horror films has today and doesn’t rely upon old tropes to make you crap your pants. Ignore Paranormal Activty 54: Ghosts move the Bed to the Right and watch this.