Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: THE WITCH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

My biggest complaint about horror films is that the filmmakers who make the movies often don’t take the material seriously and resort to hokem and cheap parlor tricks to jolt their audiences.  Loud music, sudden loud noises, and other variations of jump scares might succeed in startling, but often leave me feeling cheated. Well made horror films by talented writers and directors work their way into an audience member’s psyche and before the person realizes it, they are absorbed into the nightmare and that’s when the real frights are delivered.

Not since The Exorcist have there been too many films that have this effect on me.  That is not to say that I have not seen a good horror film since I experienced my favorite horror movie of all time, but few have ever duplicated the horrific impact of that masterpiece.  I’m not sure if The Witch has that profound impact on me, but I have to say, it comes pretty damn close.  Writer/director Robert Eggers obviously takes the genre quite seriously and proves that he knows how to make an exceptional horror movie with his feature debut.

During the 17th century, a devout Christian man named William (Ralph Ineson) moves his family to a secluded wilderness away from society.  The Puritans live a simple life, but are hardworking.  Things go terribly wrong when the infant of the family disappears and their crops begin to fail.  Unexplained, seemingly supernatural occurrences start taking place, and the family unity begins to crumble under their fears.

Robert Eggers has not only written and directed an extraordinary horror film, he has made a superb example of exceptional filmmaking.   Not since The Exorcist have I seen a straight-faced, dour horror film that builds the tension and suspense so beautifully and delivers when the horror gets unleashed. The movie starts off slowly and unassumingly and then creeps into one’s soul and psyche.  The horror in the film not only messes with the characters, but also has that same effect on anyone who watches it.

Eggers’ story and screenplay are brilliantly written.  His movie makes an indubitable statement on the power of fear and how it can destroy individuals and their relationships.  The real villain of the movie is fear and it doesn’t take too much effort on the part of the other villains in the story to use fear to accomplish their goals.  All it takes is planting that seed and watching it grow.

Eggers also has the help of an excellent director of photography (Jarin Blaschke), a talented score composer (Mark Korven), and other outstanding talents in the crew.  Their work helped Eggers bring his dark vision to life and helps create the perfect mood and tone for this nightmare.  I’m actually not certain what kind of budget the filmmakers had for the movie, but they obviously made the most of what they had. In the end, everything came out beautifully.

Eggers also could not have pulled it off so well without his extraordinary cast who all perform superbly.  The story is told mostly through the eyes of William’s eldest daughter Thomasin, who is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, and she is absolutely wonderful.  Ralph Ineson also delivers an exceptional performance as William.  He has the ability to credibly express the pain in his heart and the dread that a father/husband should feel under the circumstances.  Kate Dickie stars as Katherine, the matriarch of the family, and she also performs beautifully. As the two younger siblings of the family, Harvey Scrimshaw and Ellie Grainger offer outstanding performances.  They are excellent child actors and should have promising careers ahead.

So if one finds lame jump scares and tricks annoying, then perhaps this is a horror film not to miss.  Because I find nothing lame, annoying or silly about The Witch. I feel that Robert Eggers has made an amazing feature film debut that will leave audiences breathless, frightened and disturbed.  It is a movie people will definitely discuss afterward, and it might even have some people sleeping with their lights on for a few days too.  This was my favorite feature film of Fantastic Fest 2015, and I’m pretty sure it will be one of my favorite releases of 2016.

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