“The Witch” may be one of the most well-produced and well-received films featured at the Sundance Film Festival this year, but it may also be the film you most wish you hadn’t seen.
People may say they don’t like scary movies, but the horror genre is too diverse to dump everything into the same basket. Check the cable schedule around Halloween and you’re liable to find anything from outer space monsters to serial killers to exorcism movies.
Last year, Sundance featured “The Babadook,” a well-crafted boogeyman story out of Australia that managed to elicit real scares without crossing into R-rated territory. This year, “The Witch” crosses that line, both in content and subject matter.
“The Witch” is the story of an early 17th-century Puritan family that runs headlong into the world of witchcraft while homesteading in the unsettled forests of New England.
That information alone may be enough for a lot of audiences to say, “no thanks.” It’s one thing when your cinematic boogeyman is a radioactive zombie, and another when it’s the devil himself. And putting a devout Christian family in the crosshairs will likely make “Witch” a film that hits too close to home for religious viewers.
In fact, director/writer Robert Eggers informs us in both the opening and closing credits that “The Witch” was built on the myths and tales that emerged from early American history in that part of the country.
It’s unclear whether that information is meant to build credibility for the film, or if Eggers wants to pass the buck for the film’s more disturbing content.
At its heart, “The Witch” is an examination of our deep-rooted morals and how we choose to respond to adversity. Unfortunately for the film’s family — and their protagonist daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) — their response is a colossal failure on all counts.
On charges of insurrection, William (Ralph Ineson) is kicked out of his Puritan settlement and forced to take his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and five children out into the wilderness on their own. The forest is vast and foreboding, and thanks to an intense soundtrack that could make Disneyland look like the gates of hell, it’s a surprise that anyone gets any sleep at night.
Time passes, the family builds a house and a barn, and they start raising some animals. But the crops just don’t want to grow, and one day, the youngest child disappears under Thomasin’s watch. Turns out the family homestead is only a creepy walk through the woods away from a rather territorial witch.
The child’s gruesome fate is only step one of a progressively dark tale. One piece at a time, psychologically and physically, the family crumbles into a state of distrust and paranoia, and their religious rites don’t seem to offer anything but more despair.
The finished product is dark, oppressive and very disturbing. To its credit, “The Witch” doesn’t rely on the typical jump scares that plague a lot of so-called horror movies, but its subject matter may make you wish you’d gone for something a little more sophomoric.
With all this in mind, “The Witch” has the distinction of a well-made film that is exactly what it wants to be, but is also too intense to recommend in good conscience. Eggers crafted an effective, well-acted film that will stick with you in all the ways you probably don’t want it to. Unless you do, in which case ... best wishes?
“The Witch” is not rated but should draw an R rating for some disturbing violent content, as well as nudity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.