By Sam Graham
I have a terrible confession to make. I saw Silent Hill: Revelation (2012) at the pictures. There, I said it. I rewarded that abominable film. After going through the 5 stages of grief over my lost tenner I made a pact with myself to never see a shitty-looking horror film at pictures ever again. I broke that pact when The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014) came out, and more grief ensued. So when I saw trailers for The Witch I was very cautious. Very cautious indeed. After all, trailers lie.
Now, I never really considered a witch to be a good horror monster. The most I thought about a witch is that it’s an unimaginative Halloween costume. But don’t blame me; blame society. Charmed (1998), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), American Horror Story (2011), and The Craft (1996) all have one common thing about their witches: that they’re a bunch of cocky teenagers who treat their powers as a metaphor for teenage angst and growing adolescence. And upon discovering them they get all up themselves at how they don't take no shit yo, cos they got gnarly powers now, you dig? Who needs a man when they've got their girls? OK, so I don’t know how angsty girls talk. Sue me. The Witch, however says “fuck all that bullshit” and takes its concept from actual folklore and not some ex-goth’s repressed fantasies.
The story follows a puritanical family back in the 17th century who are
chucked out asked to leave their community. They find
themselves a patch of land and erect a farm and a new life for themselves. All
seems to be going pretty well until the oldest daughter, Thomasin is larking
with the baby, playing peekabo, but it turns out that no, she doesn't see you,
as when she opens her eyes the baby's gone. She looks around as the camera pans
up to an immense forest just past their farm, and the wide-angle lens gives the
woods, where the light dies only a few feet in, and the bleak clouds blanket
the skies, a sense of foreboding.
Here I thought it was going to be one of those ‘was it/wasn’t it’ films which leaves it up to the viewer as to whether there really was an evil force or it was just in their heads. However in the next scene when you see glimpses of the witch cutting the baby up and using its blood to make an ointment, which she then rubs all over itself, so I guess that’s that question answered. From there on a large portion of the film is the family trying to cope with it, and just like your average Trump rally, it quickly devolves into paranoia, hate, and hoping that God will save them.
They pass blame back and forth, ponder whether or not the baby will go to Hell, because he was unbaptised, and they each struggle in their own ways. The father of the family tries to be proactive and goes hunting for food, the mother sits at home and prays, and the youngest kids spend their time hanging out with a goat. As you do. Things get worse for the family when the crops die and the oldest boy goes missing (he’s lured to his doom by a saucy pair of tits) and Thomasin is just kind of caught in the middle of everyone else's bullshit. I'm not going to spoil the last quarter of the film, but as you can imagine the tension mounts on the family as their resolves eventually break and their fears get the better of them. It builds up to an ending which I really didn't expect, and only adds to the presence of the evil forces around them.
The Witch is the type of slow-burn horror film that’s rarely done well. The acting is solid all round from Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she struggles to get into the religious mojo the same way her family do, the father (Ralph Ineson) as he tries to keep his reserve for his family’s sake, and the mother (Kate Dickie), who you can only take so seriously once you’ve seen her get choked-out mid-coitus in Filth (2013). It’s minimalist in terms of cinematography and score. There’s a lot of panning around and just showing us the fields and the forest while the music holds a note for as long as it can. “The longer the note, the more dread” - Super Hans. It establishes this haunting tension pretty early on and it carries through right to the very end.
The titular witch is rarely seen (the conversation/witchiness ratio is about 20/1), but then if they did show the witch more, not only would it take away the sense of malice, but it’d become a recurring monster like Freddy or Jason, and I just know they’d make a modern day sequel that’d be all eyeliner, bodices and tacky Alchemy jewellery. Let’s be clear here: the witch isn't some scorned teenager chanting “light as a feather, stiff as a board” in front of a bunch of tealights and a pentagram made out of red eyeshadow. She's a force of evil, in league with Satan.
There's only one scene where I felt the tension was a bit ruined, and that's where the oldest boy starts spouting a load of jibberish. The way the kid delivered the lines sounded forced, like he was reading from a script. Granted, the things he was saying were a bit ham-fisted, so it might have been that, because everywhere else in the film he was natural and believable. Naturally, a film about a Christian family and the brides of Satan has a lot of religious discussion, which can get a bit tedious at times and I imagine would alienate a lot of people, so if that sort of stuff annoys you in a “Huh, they keep talking about God like he's real or summit” kind of way, I’d give this one a miss. You’ll only end up taking personal offence to someone else's beliefs anyway.
One thing I really liked is that this is a horror film, and not a jump-scare film. It’s very heavy on the atmosphere and does well to make the audience feel the same sense of dread that the family does. When the witch is involved in a scene it’s done little, which strengthens its presence. It could have so easily gone the other way and just thrown a bunch of jump-scares at us instead.
For those who don't know, there are two main differences between the types of film:
1 – Horror films have, and develop a premise which, to the victim, is scary and threatening. Jump-scare films turn the volume up to 11 every once in a while as pasty weirdos shout at the fourth wall and sometimes cats pounce in from inconceivable angles.2 – The current movie going audience doesn’t consider it a horror film unless there’s a shriek and a flash of Darth Maul over someone’s shoulder. Here’s looking at you, Insidious (2010), you pile of shit.
|(Insidious) Not pictured: Horror|
For example: When It Follows (2015) came out, someone I know told me they didn’t think it was scary because it didn’t make them jump at all. My reply was something on the lines of: “So if you watch Beaches and I turn the volume up on every time Bette Midler comes on screen, does that make Beaches a great horror film?” The person I was speaking to had never seen Beaches, but I did get them to believe it’s a horror film. I see it all the time now. IMDB forums are full of ‘it didn't have any good jump-scares’ like that's a bad thing, and they praise the works of James Wan who does nothing but. None of his films have any atmosphere. None of them even try to buy anything more than they could. He’s the Michael Bay of horror films. I don't know about you, but if I was alone in the middle of nowhere while a witch was off somewhere orchestrating my doom, I’d be pretty scared.
Take The Exorcist (1973) for example. While it’s pretty boring at times, think of the premise: A girl is possessed by the devil (let’s ignore the sequel shall we?). That’s terrifying because not only is a girl possessed by an actual fallen angel, but think of the ramifications:
1 – The Devil is real,2 – If the Devil is real then God is real,3 – The bible is true,4 – I've been sinning myself to death since I was thirteen years old,5 – I'd best go to confession just as soon as I've washed my hands.
The problem is that people aren’t scared by the premise anymore. They want loud noises and flashing lights. That's horror these days. Actually no that’s not horror; that’s the sex scene from Demolition Man (1993). Somewhere along the line we got desensitised and impatient. It’s come to be more about the instant gratification of being shit-up rather than taking time to witness a horrifying premise unfold. You can tell just from the trailers. When I saw The Witch there were 3 trailers for upcoming horror films, and they were all the same. Quiet, quiet, Bang!
Jump-scares are cheap, and a poor substitute for creativity. Anyone could film themselves walking down the street on their phone and have someone jump out at them. Put that person in white makeup and throw in a story about a house and an evil deity and you've got yourself a passable horror film by today's standards. It takes talent and creativity and an understanding of your audience to create something which has lasting effect; something that gets under your skin and stays with you even as you're walking home from the cinema.
It’s not our fault that we forgot how to wait for our supper though (well, it is). It’s just the way society is. Nowadays everything is instantaneous. Style over substance. We’re connected to everything 24/7, and information is given to us via a personalised feed (which is a daft term. Makes the human race sound like a bunch of pigs at a trough). People want everything immediately and when they can’t get it, they demand to speak to the manager. So of course Hollywood is going to cater to the audience. It’s what they do best. However every year or two an indie-horror comes out starring nobody from the A-list and goes against that current trend. Last year was It Follows, year before that was The Babadook (2014), and I’m going to say that this year’s film is The Witch.