Friday, February 19, 2016

The Witch Review

I first heard of The Witch just over a year ago as it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2016. A friend of mine attended Sundance that year and said The Witch was the scariest movie she'd ever seen. This immediately intrigued me. An indie horror film that is genuinely terrifying? That sounded great! If you've read any of my recent horror reviews, you'll know that I'm actually a fan of horror movies. Good horror movies. But that's the thing. Good horror movies are hard to come by. Horror movies are a dime a dozen these days and most of them are piles of crap. I'll dive into the reason for that in a bit, but needless to say the ratio of bad horror to good horror these days is like 20 to 1. Thus I'm on a constant search for good horror and when I come by one, I'm ecstatic. The Witch felt like a winner from the moment I heard about it. It just took a long time for it to actually arrive in normal theaters. But man was that worth the wait. You know those moments where you wait a super long time for a movie to arrive and when it does, it's cinematic gold? Yes. This was one of those moments.

If you're not a crazy movie nerd like myself and you haven't heard of The Witch because you don't follow the film festivals like I do, then let me educate you. The Witch isn't a monster movie or a supernatural horror. I suppose if you're being super technical you could classify it like that, but this is more of a period piece horror movie. Or a historical horror movie. It's set in Puritan New England in the 1600's where witchcraft was actually a serious problem. As far as the specific events and characters in this movie, this is purely a work of fiction, but the inspiration for the movie comes from actual journal entries or court cases from back in the day. People back in that time period were hung for witchcraft. They didn't take it lightly and I'm convinced that they weren't just a bunch of buffoons making crap up. Crazy stuff happened. In The Witch, we follow one specific Puritan family who lives on a farm way outside of town by a really creepy forest. They are trying to be the best they can be, but stuff just happens. I'm not going to give much of the plot away at all because there's a lot that happens and I want you to experience it on your own, but needless to say some sketchy stuff is going on with the kids, who are at various ages and genders, as well as some sketchy stuff going on in the forest. And it's pretty intense.

The great thing about The Witch is that it doesn't follow all the stupid horror cliches that plague modern-day horror. I'm talking about jump scares, gratuitous violence, crazy monsters or demons killing everyone, and all that nonsense. You see, these movies are really easy to make and are super cheap. Many that you see cost less than $10 million and in most cases less than $5 million. In fact, the first Paranormal Activity only cost $15,000 and made nearly $200 million worldwide. That's a phenomenal profit and is the exact reason why we got like a hundred more of those. Because in many cases, money is all that matters. Most of these movies don't make as much as Paranormal Activity made, but if they can just get an opening weekend of like $5 to $10 million and hold well enough to make just $15 or $20 million total, that's a profit and a sequel will be in the works. They don't care if everyone hated their movie. They made money. They'll usually hire cheap, no-name actors that are desperate for work; write up some quick, lame script; and add in a whole bunch of jump scares and/or tons of blood and gore and boom! You've got yourself a movie and you're going to make yourself some money.

This is why horror movies these days frustrate me. Story, acting, and film making in general are completely thrown out the window in favor of a quick cash grab. I was sitting in the theater watching all these trailers for these upcoming horror movies and it just made me sick. But then the trailers ended and our movie started and I was able to take a deep sigh of relief that The Witch was exactly the movie I thought it was going to be. If all you care for in a horror movie is a bunch of cheap jump scares, you're going to be bored with this movie. If you want to know what an actual good horror movie is like, then go see this because they get it right. See, a good horror movie will actually have a good story with real suspense and horror along with some good acting and good film-making. Things that most horror movies neglect. But not The Witch. Because it was an indie movie released at Sundance. There was no guarantee that they would actually make money. In fact, when they were making this, there wasn't even a guarantee that a studio would purchase the movie and give it a theatrical release. Even when A24 did purchase it for just $1 million, they were initially planning on forgoing a theatrical release. This is why I like indie movies. The focus is on making a good movie that they hope people will enjoy because there is no guarantee they will make any money.

Now to the specifics with The Witch, which yes, I've been beating around the bush a bit up to this point. I'm trying to speak in more general terms because I don't want to give anything away. This is a movie I want you to experience without knowing much about. But anyways, this is a slow build. Something happens at the beginning to make us very unsettled and then we just spend time with this family on the farm. Two things here that genuinely terrified me. Walking through the woods at night and waiting for something bad to happen. Yes, I love the outdoors. I really do. But I could not live in the outdoors like this. Camping is one thing. There's always people with you. But if I were to live in the country like this, there would be times where I would be all alone in the middle of nowhere at night and I just wouldn't be able to take it. And then there's those terrifying moments in life where you know something is amiss, yet you can't do a single thing about it and instead you're just forced to sit there alone in your house or even with family and friends and wait it out, hoping and praying that you'll be okay. See, these things are terrifying just on their own and this is what this movie plays off of. There's no need for jump scares or tons of blood and gore. That's not what this movie relies on to be terrifying. Yes, there is blood and gore in this movie, but only when it's necessary for the plot. They don't rely on it to scare you. And there's only one jump scare in the movie and it's not done as a gimmick, either.

The other areas where this movie excels at are the technical aspects of the movie as well as the acting and dialogue. Like I said earlier, this is a period piece. Doing those convincingly requires good set design as well as good costume and makeup. But it needs to happen naturally. We need to feel that we are back in that time period and that's exactly what happens. When the movie begins, it feels like we are in the 1600's and it keeps that way the whole time. Along those lines, the characters speak like they did back in the 1600's. The dialogue was very old-fashioned to the point where it almost threw me off. But it grew on me as the movie went on and pretty soon I loved it. Then they mentioned that some of the dialogue was taken directly from journal entries and court cases, which made it even better. Then we have the cinematography. This did a great job of setting the tone. In addition to a lot of amazing shots, the lighting and color schemes make this a very dim, haunting movie. A lot of browns, grays, and off-whites are used. When we get bright color, which doesn't happen very much, it's done on purpose to make something stand out. Then we have the score. And holy cow is this score good. The music is timed perfectly to totally creep you out. But it also knows exactly when to stop. There's a lot of drawn-out moments where this is no music at all and these are even scarier moments. When the music does come back, it's never over the top, which is fantastic.

A separate paragraph is necessary to talk about the acting and directing in this movie. Everyone is phenomenal in this. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Yet I knew none of them going in. The best I can give you is that the father in this movie played Amycus Carrow in the last few Harry Potter moves. Who? Exactly. These are new faces and I hope this movie propels them to stardom because they deserve it. The parents are very Puritan and religious. Their reactions to the stuff that happens is very raw and emotional. When conversations are had, those conversations are amazing because of how much honest emotion there is. And the kids. Wow. Just, wow. They never really tell us their ages, but we have an older daughter played by 19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, who I'm guessing was 18 when they were filming. She's the star of this movie and knocks it out of the park. Yet the best performances in my opinion were the younger three. We have the young teenage boy and the two youngest who look like they are only like 6 or 7. Maybe younger. I don't know. But with them, I have to give a ton of credit to the director. It's one thing to direct talented adult actors. It's another to get these types of performances out of child actors. Speaking of director Robert Eggers, this is his feature-lenght directorial debut. Man, what a debut!

And finally, I have to talk about the meat of this movie. No spoilers here. Just principles. Witchcraft. This is nothing new. Witches have been portrayed in Hollywood quite a bit. Most witches in Hollywood have a fantasy element to them and thus are fun to use in fictional pieces or dress up like on Halloween. That's not this movie. Remember that I said this is not a monster movie like some horrors. This is pure, historical witchcraft. This is not a religious movie, nor is it a Satanic movie. This is an honest movie that doesn't take sides and doesn't hold back. Satanic rituals happen. People do horrible, disturbing things because of these Satanic rituals. And that's why this movie works so well. Yes, the buildup is excellent. But if the meat of the movie felt hokey and fake, this wouldn't have had the same impact it does. The fact that it feels so real and is based on actual accounts make this disturbing and unsettling. Yes, horror movies use the "based on actual events" as a cheap gimmick all the time, but this is an instance where it wasn't just a gimmick. It felt real. People were hung for witchcraft back in the 1600's. Just read about the Salem witch trials or other similar events. This was no joke for them and after watching this, you'll know why.

There's more elements to this idea of witchcraft that I want to discuss, especially after hearing who endorsed this movie, but now is not the time. See the movie then we can talk spoilers privately. Just know that overall I really appreciated The Witch for going against the really annoying and trashy horror cliches that give the genre a bad name. I like the horror genre and it's because of movies like this. Instead of using cheap jump scares and other stuff like that, this is a slow-building horror movie that uses cinematography, production design, music, acting, and story to deliver a horror movie that is actually genuinely creepy and unsettling. The subject matter it dives into is very honest and real, thus is a movie that will probably stick with me for a long time. I can't recommend this to everyone because of how disturbing it gets, but if you are a fan of good horror, go see this movie. Give them your money. I want this movie to make a decent amount of money so that Hollywood can see that they don't have to keep using cheap, stupid, horror gimmicks in order to make money and instead they can focus on actually making a good movie. I liked this even more than last year's It Follows and given time I can see this being on the same level as 2014's The Babadook, which was one of my favorite movies that year. Thus my initial grade for The Witch is a 9.5/10.

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