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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Witch  (2016)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3.5 Stars
(Release Date: May 17, 2016) – "The Witch" is not only "A New-England Folktale," as it is described in the opening titles, but legitimately looks, sounds and feels as if writer-director Robert Eggers somehow took modern film cameras back to 1630 and shot it using real-life Puritan settlers. For this reason and so much more, this is a boldly stirring feature debut, a destined-to-endure horror picture of wicked terrors both real and imagined; indeed, it is no surprise Eggers won the Best Director award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Playing out at a deliberate tempo yet transfixing in its devilishly unnerving aura, "The Witch" does nothing if not seep under one's skin and stay there.

Ousted from his plantation after clashing with the community over a desire for stricter religious reform, William (Ralph Ineson) moves his family—wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel—to an isolated farmstead cut off from society. With no crops able to grow during the late-fall and winter months, they face a challenging season before them. When little Samuel suddenly goes missing under Thomasin's watch, William and Katherine see it as either a test from God or punishment for their sins. Once tragedy strikes again soon thereafter, the bereaved and frightened family members begin to point the finger at each other as faith-laden hysteria and the looming threat of witchcraft overcome them.

"The Witch" trusts in the intelligence and imagination of viewers, understanding the value of suggestion while genuinely surprising as it dares to burrow to truly unsparing places. The film's fastidious authenticity contributes to the spell; Eggers made sure the clothing, tools, reconstructed 17th-century farmhouse, and use of North Yorkshire accents were true to the story's era. If the proceedings are a breathtakingly detailed achievement in historical research and production design, Eggers' screenplay, Jarin Blaschke's bewitchingly austere lensing, and Mark Korven's discordantly menacing score complete the illusion. Taking this journey alongside characters imprisoned by their own rigid beliefs and superstitions is akin to being on an out-of-control Tilt-a-Whirl with a screw coming perilously loose.

Breakthrough newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation as Thomasin, a young woman misunderstood by her parents and siblings while facing a harsh discovery William and Katherine are not aware she knows. Taylor-Joy is an enthralling, frequently intense presence, holding her own in emotionally demanding situations yet also exquisitely embodying a vulnerable child yearning for answers of her own. Ralph Ineson (2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service") is touching as father William, grasping to find reason as the family he has raised begins to crumble, while Kate Dickie (2012's "Prometheus") gives mother Katherine a sorrow and ruthlessness that leaves one wondering of what she is capable. Also truly impressive: Harvey Scrimshaw as the curious, thoughtful Caleb, the approach of puberty colliding with a darkness he dreads but cannot wholly envision. Younger performers Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson seamlessly round out the cursed clan as easily influenced twins Mercy and Jonas. Are their whisperings and games with their wily goat Black Phillip a childhood fancy, or an indication of more malevolent insinuations?

"The Witch" isn't merely a throwback to a different time, but to a bygone cinematic age wherein the horror genre was not about jump scares but about a more lastingly shuddersome, thematically juicy potency. Casual mainstream audiences looking for cheap thrills need not apply; as a provocative study in familial grief, the dangers of religious zealotry, and the evolution of a new world cloaked in fears of the unknown, this is a film requiring attention, patience, deeper consideration, and the allowance of each successive scene to wash over him or herself in a wave of eerie portent. For those willing to step aboard, the rewards are plentiful, all the more haunting for what isn't revealed as for what is.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"The Witch" is a rustic beauty in high-definition 1080p. Shot digitally using the Arri Alexa, the film's color scheme favors a relatively monochromatic palette of blacks, grays and whites, all the better to immerse the viewer in its puritanical 17th-century setting. Shadows and black levels are rich and deep, while details in faces and among the surrounding forests positively pop with lush depth and clarity. Select backgrounds are soft and slightly hazy in certain shots where people are featured in the forefront of the frame, but this is purposeful and how the film was lensed by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio isn't a sonic tornado, so to speak, but it offers expert handling of the material. This is a fairly quiet film full of hushed dialogue, but it almost always comes through clearly and is effectively mixed within a stirring, at time bone-chilling, sound design. Whistling winds, clacking branches, Black Phillips' "bahhhs," and an elegant music score by Mark Korven make forbiddingly wonderful use of the surround channels.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with writer-director Robert Eggers
  • "The Witch: A Primal Folktale" Featurette (8:28, HD)
  • Salem Panel Q&A with writer-director Robert Eggers, actor Anya Taylor-Joy, and historians-authors Brunonian Barry and Richard Trask (27:59, HD)
  • Design Gallery (HD)
Bottom Line
"The Witch" is a classy, thought-provoking horror film, one that averts from any and all current trends of the genre. Turning back the clock by nearly 400 years, director Robert Eggers has brought the 1600s to life while dropping his audience squarely in this bygone century. The spell he creates is disquieting yet magical. "The Witch" is disturbing in both its subtleties and in the dark thematic places it dares to go. Here is a motion picture that cares little about jump scares, relying on mood and bewitching ideas to invade the viewers' minds. Lionsgate and A24's Blu-ray release is top-notch, looking and sounding fab. Special features are excellent as well, bringing valuable insight into the making of the film. "The Witch" is highly recommended on Blu-ray. For fans, it's a must-buy.

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© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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