Given her popularity at Halloween, in kid and YA culture (The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter), and in productions of Macbeth, the witch has been surprisingly scarce in the horror movie.1 Certainly, she makes far fewer appearances than vampire, zombie, werebeast, mad slasher, or lab-made monster.

The most discussed horror film of 2016 makes some amends by casting the traditional witch as its villain. Does this spell-binding story live up to the hype?

Title: The Witch

Written and directed by Sam Eggers

Cast

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin
Ralph Ineson as William
Kate Dickie as Katherine
Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb
Ellie Grainger as Mercy
Lucas Dawson as Jonas
Bathsheba Garnett as the Old Witch
Sarah Stephens as the Young Witch
Julian Richings as Governor
Wahab Chaudhry as Black Phillip

Premise:

In the early 1600s, an isolated New England family, two of whose children are entering adolescence, experience social, psychological, religious, and supernatural malignancies. After the disappearance of their youngest member, the family wonders if the eldest daughter, Thomasin, has signed a pact with Satan. We know she hasn’t but, given the choices she faces, we wonder if maybe that isn’t her best option.

High Point:

The Witch brings you into a worldview and world long dead, and then slowly destroys the characters’ understanding of that world. Although the film features literal witches, the plagues that beset the family start long before the first supernatural visitation, and may suggest different social and psychological evils to different viewers. Brother Caleb, for example (and, just possibly, father William) take a little too much interest in eldest daughter Thomasin’s burgeoning sexuality.

Perhaps the most intriguing effect of the film is to make us question whether Thomasin, in the end, makes the right choice.

Low Points

My Low Point isn’t exactly a Low Point, but it will be for many people, so we might as well discuss it.

I actually like the ending. The film draws some of its power by taking early colonial American beliefs about witchcraft at their word. Yes, a less literal script might have been more effective but, given its premise, there were few other ways the film could finish.

But many viewers will find the conclusion, both literal and ambivalent, disappointing. The matinee group with whom I shared the theatre were less enthusiastic than most critics have been, and two women actually stalked afterwards through the lobby loudly telling complete strangers not to see The Witch, and assuring the bewildered teenage concession clerks that the film “isn’t their fault.”

The Witch will provoke such reactions.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 I’m certain some of the imagery has not appeared onscreen before, though it comes directly from historic sources, testimony imagined, elicited, and coerced regarding the doings of witches. I’m also certain cinema has underused such sources.

Moreover, a film for an audience that occupies the Venn overlap among horror fans, history buffs, and festival hipsters constitutes some kind of mad originality.

Effects: 6/6 The film makes excellent and restrained use of (mainly, at least) physical effects, and the soundscape definitely adds to the film’s disturbing atmosphere.

Acting: 6/6 The film has been cast perfectly, a fact made more remarkable by the number of young people, and the challenges of the period dialect. Nineteen-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy stands out as doubting Thomasin. And while the rest of the family rightly have been lauded by critics for their emotionally-resonant performances, Bathsheba Garnett feels disturbingly real in her few appearances.

I am somewhat curious how on earth Eggers directed young Harvey Scrimshaw in the scene where he relives his film-mother’s erotic dreams about Jesus. Because that had to a difficult one to sell to an adolescent boy.

Production: 6/6 The film, beautifully-designed, lit, and realized, immerses the viewer in its world, as required to make the movie work.

Story: 5/6

Emotional Response: 5/6 The Witch moves slowly in places, but it manages its disturbing effects with minimal resort to gore and jump-scares.

Overall: 5/6 If you cannot follow where this film takes you, you will likely leave the theatre baffled and unsatisfied.

In total, The Witch receives 36/42

Notes

1. The silent era gave us Häxan aka The Witches / Witchcraft Through the Ages. Hammer Studios briefly tapped the genre in the 1960s, while the YA crowd had The Craft in the 1990s. The Blair Witch Project seems like it should count, though its central monster (apart from nausea-inducing camerawork) acts more like a malignant spirit.

Part of the problem lies in determining which films qualify. Do Satanic cult flicks, such as Rosemary’s Baby count as witch movies? I also wonder about the various incarnations of Carrie and Ringu, films depicting the popular concept of a witch in all but name.