** out of *****
There are some horror films you know you’re going to love right from the very beginning. Alas, a lot of what tingles thine fancy – the deviations from the norm by which one is seduced during the first third of said pictures – eventually cave in on themselves and collide with elements more true to the genre, which are not especially well-handled by this filmmaker. That’s the good and the bad of The Witch, but then, there’s the ugly. Before we get to that, let us survey the good.
The movie has atmosphere to burn – so much so that it burns with as much vengeance, if not more so, than did the Puritans who used to burn witches at the stake – blending period-perfect 17th-century language culled from actual documents of the time with meticulous adornments upon every aspect of the film’s production design.
William (Ralph Ineson), the character we’ll be spending most of the film with, is the patriarch of a family that includes his wifey Katherine (Kate Dickie), a woman whose kisser looks like she’s perpetually sucking on lemons (especially when her baby is suckling on her teat); their sexy, drool-inspiring teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), on the cusp of burgeoning manhood; and a pair of pint-sized twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson) who are so annoying that one is hoping they’re eventually dispatched in the most vicious (and viscous) manner possible.
What’s immediately creepy and oddly hilarious is that William and his family have been living in a commune of religion-soaked Puritan nutcases, but our hillbilly-like patriarch decides to move his family deep into the wilderness as he fears the commune isn’t religious enough. To say he a religious fundamentalist in extremis would perhaps qualify as an understatement.
He drags his family out into the middle of nowhere, forcing them (and himself) to endure backbreaking hardships. When the baby is kidnapped by an evil witch and dragged off into the woods, Mom goes completely bunyip, Dad gets even crazier, meaner and more violent with his 17th-century Tea Party-like values, the eldest son and daughter become even more sexually frustrated and the twins skyrocket into the kind of obnoxiousness we’re still hoping yields a fate worse than death itself.
The film’s pace is that of a snail – albeit a snail, to quote Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, ‘that’s crawling along the edge of a straight razor’.
This is all good. We wait breathlessly, if not helplessly, until the genuine shite of Salem evil hits the proverbial fan of terror. However, it doesn’t happen. The movie continues loping about like a kind of drearily blinkered and infuriatingly late-career Terence Malick, the narrative repeatedly spinning its wheels and creepy transforming into just plain Dullsville.
That’s the bad. The ugly is threefold. Occasional dollops of horror movie tropes are spat out with ever-frequent ineffectiveness and, secondly, the movie dives feverishly into religious hysteria, which is so intense it detracts from our enjoyment from what should be scary by this point, as opposed to what the film’s director wants us to find scary, the religious hysteria itself.
Lastly, the meticulous pace veers between overwrought and just plain boring, so much so that we’re allowed far too many opportunities to daydream about where all this is going. If you’re like me, you’ll realize that the whole movie is slowly building to a ‘shock ending’ we can see coming from miles away. It’s one of those, ‘Oh God, I hope the picture is not going to go here.’ Then, when it does, we’re left wildly underwhelmed.
Cinema has always had a grand tradition of dealing with religious hysteria tied to the patriarchal fear of pussy, lest we forget Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, plus virtually anything foisted upon us by Ingmar Bergman. Unfortunately, The Witch wants to have its cake and eat it too. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but the film’s director has not quite amassed the skill necessary to seriously explore patriarchal ignorance, which uses religion to murder innocent women, with the shudders and shocks needed to render a flat-out horror film.
The Witch is bargain basement Terence Malick crossed with a Roman Polanski wannabe and dollops of half-baked Bergman, but worse yet, is not unlike lower-drawer M. Night Shyamalan.
That, my friends, is truly chilling.
Watch the trailer: