A poor combination of being on holiday followed by being very ill for the last two weeks means it took until last night for me to finally see The Witch, the debut film from director and writer Robert Eggers. I was stunned by how wonderful this film was: it’s so dark, so starkly beautiful and really, really well-acted. It’s a gem of a film and one of my favourites I’ve watched in a long time.
The Witch follows a family of Puritans that have emigrated from England to a plantation in New England in the 17th century. The father William (played by Ralph Ineson) is excommunicated from the plantation, along with his family.
They make a life for themselves outside the edge of a wood. One day the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), loses her baby brother Sam while joyfully playing with him outside the woods. Unbeknownst to Thomasin and her parents, Sam has been taken by a witch who lives in those woods.
The family hardly catch a break from that point as things go from horrible to truly heart-wrenching to down-right demonic. The family struggle with their own demons, relying on their religion to help them through their pain. But some things can’t beat magic, and we certainly are not always strong enough to fight our own wills (if we even want to).
But I really don’t want to talk about the specifics of this film. As the credits rolled, I started to ponder what this fantastic piece meant for the horror genre. Despite the title above saying “review”, I found myself not wanting to write a review. Chances are, if you wanted to see this film you already have, and you know what you think of it. While there’s certainly a lot to talk about with the movie’s deep symbolism, there’s something more to suss out here.
Certainly there will be no The Witch 2: She’s Bewitchin’! or any nonsense like that. Or, at least I hope so. There were hardly any jump scares here or any amount of excessive gore, and yet it doesn’t fail to haunt you as you leave the theater. That is, if you got the film, as The Witch brings a lot more complexity to the table than most studio pictures will.
The success of The Witch proves several things: First and most importantly, great horror films are still being made.
I really loath when people say “no good horror movies are made anymore.” It just proves that they are either lazy or stupid, but probably both. Within the last several years there have been horror movies that I believe are set to become modern classics. The Witch aside, movies like It Follows, House of the Devil and The Babadook prove that this success is not a one-off, but a genuine trend.
I suppose these films can be seen as exceptions instead of rules, but when was there ever a consistent number of good horror movies being produced? Never, would be the answer. But it is certainly easy to look back in the past and pick out films that were great, but many are only appreciated in retrospect.
Certainly there are a lot of awful horror films being made, I don’t think anyone can disput that, but people keep referring to The Witch‘s success like this is something new. There have always been bad movies (trust me, I’ve had to watch my fair share), but isn’t that true of most movie genres?
Great movies are made every year, but how many from each generation become true classics? How many films can still fill you with suspense like Rear Window? How many Breakfast Clubs were made before or after the 80s? None because there was only one Alfred Hitchcock and one John Hughes. There was also only one Orson Welles and is only one Dario Argento.
Why do we expect one genre to always be hitting its stride? Horror has always been savagely over-looked and thus underfunded. Many horror classics such as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween are actually independent films. Horror has always struggled to be made because at its best, it’s subversive and thought-provoking and shouldn’t be pleasing to the general masses. The reason horror thrived so well in the 70s (the director era) and in the 80s (the producer era) is because there was just different markets.
Today’s films are all made with the international market in mind, which makes taking chances on scripts a lot more risky. Why fund an unknown independent movie when you can remake something that people already know any will see. 2015’s remake of Poltergeist is a prime example of a film that will never eclipse the spirit of the original, but still grossed over $95 million worldwide.
I would like to think that the success of The Witch also means that studios will stop being afraid to fund original horror ideas. I’m not holding my breath, though. The Witch is distributed by A24, a company that is only a fraction of the size of Paramount Pictures, who released Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension in 2015. Paranormal Activity was also an independent film, that took off so suddenly that it’s now ended up as a joke franchise after being decimated by the franchise-loving studios.
The Witch is truly a magic of film making. The performances were superb and I really hope that this is more of a diving board for people’s renewed interest in horror. There are many good (and bad) things out there, but a gamble on an original idea can really pay off. It certainly has here.