The Witch (2015) (R)

It's really difficult to be original in horror anymore. Pretty much anything that can scare people has scared people. I mean, you can make the same critique of comedy; but no one really cares about recycled jokes or narratives. Horror is scrutinized a little more, mostly because we're looking for something grotesque that we haven't seen before. I'm not sure "The Witch" really delivers on all the hype surrounding its originality; and like many of its contemporaries, it doesn't really know how to end. But all that aside, it does feature some startling visual images and is fairly arresting throughout.
Billed as "A New-England Fairytale", "The Witch" isn't straight up horror. At least, it really shouldn't be considered that. It's more of a period piece and a reflection on the mindset of the first people to travel from England to America for religious reasons. This, mixed with a little fantasy.
Christianity is the backbone of the movie and those unfamiliar with some of the smaller nuances of the doctrine may not cringe as much when the film starts to twist and bend, manipulating characters into taboo situations. It does make you push back against its more visceral and cringe-worthy moments.
William (Ralph Ineson) is somewhat of an outcast. The movie starts with him setting himself apart from the rest of his cohorts as the holiest among them. He accuses them of hypocrisy and blasphemy and, as any good tribunal should, they kick him out of town. Now on their own in the New England terrain (which is both beautiful and eerie) William and his family must set up to survive the oncoming winter (insert "Game of Thrones" comment); but they find that the woods surrounding them may have more surprises than what they first imagined.
"The Witch" is a small movie, in a spatial sense. It takes place mostly on one farm and in one area of woods surrounding the house. The cast is very small and yet we never feel cheated by this. The narrative switches from one character to the next quickly, the scenes cut to black abruptly, and the the conventions of jump-scare horror movies are ignored for the most part. Though it has a screechy score that is more intense than most of the movie, you kind of have to admire what Robert Eggers is accomplishing. With minimal sets, minimal acting, and minimal effects, he's able to crawl under your skin better than some of the "great" horror movies of the last century. This isn't to say the movie is perfect, because it has flaws.
Eggers writes a script that tries to recapture the language in use at the time. In most places it works, to the credit of his cast, but sometimes it just feels clunky and unnecessary. This could just be my opinion, but it feels unnatural coming out of the younger actors' mouths. As William and his wife Kate (Kate Dickie) find ways to manage their children, disaster strikes almost immediately. The film doesn't take any time before charging right into the thick of it. We are treated to brutal imagery right from the beginning which I suppose is a way to weed out the weak-stomached from the 'brave'.
Thomasin, William and Kate's daughter, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is as much the protagonist as the film can have. She embodies much of the tropes expected of leading ladies in horror movies. The added historical context sort of amplifies the actions and results.
The movie owes the biggest debt to Lars von Trier and specifically "Antichrist". While it attempts to recreate that unsettling and completely unmatched last third, it fails to do so. It isn't surreal enough to be supernatural and is too realist for us to accept some of the conclusions in the film.
While it does creep up and blindside the audience at certain moments, nothing is terribly surprising or shocking in the film. Maybe that's due to the limitations on what can be introduced into the situation without compromising the historical integrity.
At the end, "The Witch" is a gorgeous movie. Its cinematography is wonderful, the score (although too screechy) is effective, and it's genuinely horrifying at moments. I think it's stretching for something further, maybe a commentary on women and religion in this time period; but ultimately adhering to long worn out tropes of horror don't really help its cause.

Score: ★★★

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