Expectations, dear friend, are a fickle mistress indeed. They have the capacity to elevate something unseen to undeserved heights of wonder and amazement or, just as easily, to drag it down into the murky depths of awfulness. Especially these days, when everyone not only has an opinion but is sharing it online, once-innocuous phrases like “I thought this was pretty good” or “that just wasn’t my cup of tea” have become positively loaded and can trigger “flame wars” that rage for weeks.
Of course, one advantage to “taking a pass” on a film in theaters and waiting for it to hit Blu-ray/DVD/streaming services is that you can get a general consensus as to what most folks think about it before deciding whether or not to invest and/or waste your time on it. True, there are times when everybody —or at least damn near everybody — is wrong (shit, look at how many people plan on voting for Donald Trump), but more often than not when a lot of people whose opinions you generally trust tell you that something is good, it turns out to be exactly that.
And ya know what? Damn near everyone whose opinions I generally trust said that writer/director Robert Eggers’ 2015-lensed indie horror The Witch was very good indeed when it hit theaters in February of this year. Truth be told, I wanted to go catch it on the big screen myself and see what all the fuss was about, but a brutal-at-the-time work schedule prevented me from doing so. Now that it’s available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate (with a fairly nice package of extras including a “making-of” featurette, excepts from a Q&A session held at the film’s debut in Salem, Massachusetts, and a very involving full-length commentary track by Eggers) and I do have a bit more free time on my hands, though, there was no excuse for me to keep delaying the inevitable. So now the question is — were all those folks who loved it right?
I’m going to answer that with a qualified “yes.” Certainly The Witch is a stylish and brooding piece of work that is gorgeous in its bleakness and elevates drabness to an art form by wringing every last drop out of its reported $3.5 million budget. Ostensibly set in New England (although it was filmed in Ontario) circa 1630 the costumes, dialogue, character mannerisms, and overall tone of the proceedings are all absolutely spot-on when it comes to recreating what was no doubt a very lousy time to be alive. In addition, Eggers gets one absolutely superb performance after another out of his largely-unknown cast, and you can tell from the word “go” that everyone both in front of and behind the camera is putting their all into this tale about a devoutly religious family that finds nothing but tragedy and hardship when they move off the plantation/colonial lands they had been helping to farm in order to make a go of it on their own on a plot of harsh acreage at the very edge of a dense and no doubt haunted forest. Their sense of isolation and desperation is palpable throughout, and the intensity of each rises in the wake every unlucky occurrence that befalls them, beginning with the disappearance of their infant son and culminating in — well, that would be telling. But as things go from bad to worse to even worse along the way, you certainly feel it right down to your bones.
So, yeah, there’s plenty of dread and terror on offer here, if few traditional “scares.” And when mid-teens daughter Thomasin (superbly portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes the scapegoat for her family’s woes a number of valid points about parental and societal fear of emerging female sexuality are made that definitely hit home — heck, when newly- pubescent brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) begins to develop unasked-for (and thankfully never-acted-upon) feelings of arousal for her, you just know that, sooner or later, she’s gonna get blamed for everything that happens — never mind that the combination of isolated living and religious extremism can pretty much only end in insanity for one and all.
Speaking of insanity, the clan’s mother, Katherine (played by Kate Dickie) certainly bears all the visible hallmarks of that affliction, while father William (Ralph Ineson) spends most of the flick doing his level best to resist its siren call and younger twin siblings Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) — well, they’re either evil “bad seed”-types, or else perfectly innocent victims. Maybe even both? There’s and admirable amount of subtlety and nuance in all this film’s characters barring Katherine, and that certainly gives it a leg up on much of its competition in the horror genre right there.
And yet — for all its visual flair and fine acting and historical authenticity, there are a few areas where Eggers’ film comes up short. There’s a decent amount of confusion as to which animal is acting as the “familiar” for the titular witch who may or may not really live in the woods (first it’s a rabbit, then it’s the goat named “Black Phillip” pictured above): the oppressive downward spiral of the story isn’t interspersed with any “hey, maybe there’s a way out of this” moments that would have served to make the ending both harrowing and tragic; and to a certain extent Thomasin’s final fate, while managing to be both shocking and entirely believable, wastes some of the sympathy we’d spent the previous 80 minutes developing for her character. In short, the story suffers from some bizarre and ill-considered tonal shifts where it doesn’t need them, and misses the boat on offering them where they are needed.
It’s nagging little details such as these that which prevent The Witch from being the modern horror masterpiece that many of its most enthusiastic partisans claim it to be, but it’s still a very interesting, evocative, at times haunting, and undeniably effective slice of genre filmmaking. If you go in with sky-high expectations you may feel slightly let down, sure — but if you go in with none, chances are you’ll walk away from it very impressed.