Movie Review: Does “The Witch” live up to its Sundance hype?

Few movies made as much noise out of 2015’s Sundance Film Festival as Robert Egger’s supernatural chiller “The Witch”. Almost immediately, people began comparing it to William Friedkin’s original “Exorcist” and proclaiming it to be one of the scariest films to be made within the studio system in decades. There were no reports of walkouts or any fainting or vomiting or anything like that, but if you had told me there had been, I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s how powerful the buzz has been around Eggers’ directorial debut. Here was a movie seemingly cobbled from our darkest thoughts and blessedly devoid of boneheaded horror movie clichés: a feast for cinephiles and mavens of the macabre, a throwback to a more patient age of horror… something for us, as opposed to something for everyone else. In a cinematic landscape littered with anemic corporatized products like “Annabelle” and the “Conjuring,” “The Witch” seemed like a genuine anomaly: a slow-burning period piece that examines the religious history of its era from an entirely different angle.

So does “The Witch” live up to its Sundance hype? Yes and no. Eggers’ film is a tense, immaculately crafted bit of bump-in-the-night creepiness that’s somehow not nearly as heart-stoppingly scary as some of its more ardent supporters may tell you it is. From the entrancing early scenes, it is immediately clear that Eggers possesses a fine and understated sense of directorial craft (as he should; he’s a former production designer). He likes to enclose his characters within the oppressive weight of the natural world, often framing his lost New Englanders against the fog-enshrouded countryside like Daniel Plainview in the eerie early moments of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” which is its own kind of horror movie. As a visual storyteller, Eggers is also incredibly patient: even when he lets the scares build to an unbearable boil, he never quite cuts loose in the way many other horror directors do. Eggers wants the sinister mood of this film to seep into your soul, he’s less interested in having you jump out of your skin. And while I think “The Witch” might be more minor and ultimately more problematic than some of its more hyperbolic advocates would it admit, it contains two or three of the most genuinely horrifying things I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long time and that should be enough to recommend it, in spite of its periodic lull patches.

The setting in 17th-century puritanical New England. A deeply religious family, led by the gruff, unsmiling William (Ralph Ineson) and anchored by their young daughter, a sweet girl of boundless imagination named Thomasin, (Anya Taylor Joy, whose face was made for the movies) have recently been banished from the village they call home. The family then sets out into the unforgiving wilderness, in hopes of forging a new life for themselves. The exact reasons for their departure remain unclear throughout the film.

As the family settles into their new home, the woods that surround them seem more threatening than usual. One day, during a game of hide-and-seek, Thomasin’s baby brother goes missing. Her brother Caleb disappears too; when he returns, he begins suffering from feral, spasmodic outbursts that leave him in a debilitated state. There’s a goat on their new piece of land that the young children call Black Phillip who may be an incarnation of some malevolent spirit. And all the while, there are hostile whispers of a witch who lurks somewhere deep within the woods and feeds on the flesh of young children.

Somewhat surprisingly, Eggers shows us the Witch of the title early on, and what we see is awful on an almost primal level: the stuff of nightmares. It sets us up for a much scarier movie, when what we get is instead a ghoulish, stylized mood piece that’s ultimately just a bit too mannered to burrow as deep into the opaque corners of our mind as deep as it wants to. While I admire Eggers’ decision to pen the entire story in period-appropriate Olde English dialect, it creates a considerable divide in the sense of immediacy that is integral to powerful horror cinema. It’s not ponderous, but it’s dangerous close. The writer/director is certainly to be commended for committing to the authenticity of his milieu, but by the time I got to by dozenth “speak if this be pretense,” I was longing for a less arcane basis of interaction between the film’s central four characters. It doesn’t help that the movie eventually arrives at a bonkers, admittedly ambitious conclusion that suggests the psychedelic nightmare narratives of Mario Bava and Dario Argento taken to their campiest respective extremes. It’s a bold stroke, one that displays tremendous faith in the audience, but it feels slightly inappropriate as the cap to the somber, somewhat muted tale of horror that we have just witnessed.

“The Witch” has a bumpy, stop-and-go sort of rhythm that I haven’t seen in many horror films ever. Moments of stark, almost outlandish terror are followed by lush, quiet passages of bucolic visual poetry. Passages of genteel family bonding are suddenly interrupted by abrupt and upsetting violence. The movie’s defenders will say it’s expertly paced and to be sure, Eggers builds just well enough to his gonzo conclusion to almost earn it. But I would argue that “The Witch” is in possession of a more unusual set of virtues: its disequilibrium becomes its own reward. After the painterly, elegant early passages, a hair-raising sense of surreal fervor begins to lurch in from the margins and color the movie’s corners in a sleek sheen of Satanic black. Eggers’ classical reverence doesn’t always mesh perfectly with his less obvious postmodern impulses, but the movie works in spite of this imbalance and it’s almost never boring as a result of it.

While I’m not sure that I would call “The Witch” a new horror masterwork in the same vein as something like David Robert Mitchell’s recent instant classic “It Follows,” it’s an undeniably unique and well-made film, and one that I suspect might play better with repeat viewings. The movie has a sense of texture and world-building that is remarkable — you never feel like you’re watching actors play dress up in ornately designed sets. Rather, “The Witch” does what good horror cinema, and really, good cinema in general, is supposed to do: it transports us. I wish it had abandoned its rigid solemnity in favor of something more psychologically penetrating, i.e. I wish this sometimes very goofy movie realized it could have a sense of humor and still function as a piece of horror entertainment. And though I’m still not sure how well that ending meshes with the rest of the movie, “The Witch” is all but impossible to shake from your mind. Although I can’t quite recommend it, a part of me can’t wait until I can see it again. B

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