Now I’m not normally the biggest fan of horror films as they appear today. In most cases, they aren’t scary, relying too much on loud noises and stupid characters over genuine tension. However, over the past few years, more horror films have been released that have focused on atmosphere, mainly The Babadook and It Follows and this style of horror is what attracted me to The Witch. What I didn’t expect was that The Witch would easily eclipse those other films, this is easily one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen, up there with The Wicker Man for me.The film concerns a Puritan family, who were excommunicated from their plantation for being too devout, even for Puritans. They soon set up their own farm, but later find themselves at the mercy of a witch. I don’t really want to talk about the general plot more as the film is best experienced going in as blind as possible but I will say the plot does a great job in creating the horror of the film. Whilst we know that the witch is real right from the start, that’s not where the real horror lies, it’s more of a narrative device to set up the dynamic of the family, and it’s here where the horror truly lies. The religious devotion of the family creates some great tension and paranoia, whilst we know there’s a witch, they don’t and the paranoia and scaremongering that develops between the family as the film goes on is incredibly tense. More tension also comes from the more mundane elements of horror (comparitively at least) with the family crops failing and concerns over food breeding more tension between the family. The film also does a good job showing how the fervour the family feels about sin may be what attracted the witch to them and this element of sin makes for great family dynamics as the film goes on, especially as the sins of the family are exposed and their attempts to hide them further more sin and distrust, the denial of sin mixed with religous fervour creating the perfect breeding grounds for more disturbing sins. This all creates an amazing, atmospheric tone for the film which is what makes the film so terrifying.
This atmosphere is aided by excellent acting throughout, however it’s hard to talk about how brilliant the performances are because they are rooted in subtlety. Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Thomasin, she brings great feelings of guilt to the character, along with growing horror and frustration over everything that happens in the film. She also does a good job showing how sibling rivalries and her growing adolescence become elements of paranoia and fear in this environment. An equally excellent performance is given by Ralph Ineson and the head of the family William. Whilst it’s clear he loves his family, he is filled with too much pride and self confidence which means he’s unable to see the difficulties the family face until it’s too late. His religious devotion provides a great backdrop to the horror of the film and Ineson uses this to create some great elements of self doubt and anger, along with showing hypocrisy in how he acts against what he preaches. One of the more unsettling performances comes from Kate Dickie as the mother Katherine, who’s feelings of loss and grief are palpable and the growing instability she shows throughout the film creates some of the most unsettling imagery in the film. This factor is also seen with Harvey Scrimshaw as oldest son Caleb, who’s emerging sexuality is fostering in very unsettling ways because of the isolation, but he also does want to provide for the family, being willing to risk himself for the good of the family, whilst Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson as the twins Mercy and Jonas get some of the creepiest scenes in the film, their actions helping to foster the fear and paranoia in the family. I wish I could talk about the performances more in depth but the subtle nature of them prevents me from doing so, especially since I fear discussing them could spoil the ending.
On a technical level, the film is incredible, which is even more impressive considering it’s a debut film. The direction and cinematography does an incredible job building the atmosphere of the film, creating this incredibly tense vibe so that when the more horrific elements come into play at the end of the film I was genuinely shaking in my seat because of how scared I was. This is aided by brilliant music which does an incredible job adding to the tone, the music being used at just the right moments to heighten the tension. The production design and costume design meanwhile does an excellent job in recreating the 17th century atmosphere, making the world feel more believable, which adds to the tension, with this being matched by incredible location scouting, the forest in the film having a very ominous feel which helps create the tension in the film. The animal training also has to be praised, although to say more would be to spoil the film.
Overall, The Witch is easily the best horror film I’ve seen in the cinema and one of the best horror films I’ve seen period. The atmosphere the film creates, aided by the great script, acting, direction and production design, disturbed me in a way that very few films are able to. I was shaking in my seat because of how scared I was watching the film and even when the jumpscares come in they work brilliantly for the narrative, being genuine jump scares over the loud noises we get in stuff like the Paranormal Activity series. Very few horror films get this distinction from me but The Witch deserves to be mentioned in the same vein as The Wicker Man and The Shining, this is a tense, unsettling film that will stay with me long after this review is published.
My Rating: 5/5