For all it’s merits, there’s a self-consciousness to Robert Eggers’ The Witch that burdens it. It’s not as scary as it should have been, nor is it as compelling. The Witch is a film that engages in its genre, which is horror. That might sounds straightforward, but a lot of films that promote themselves as horror are in actuality exercises in shock. Good horror engenders dread. That’s The Exorcist, The Shining, Halloween, Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby (the last of which The Witch owes somewhat of a debt to). Jump scares are few and far between in The Witch. And there is a conspicuous sense of dread. It’s almost a remarkable film.
The narrative revolves around a family in the 17th century that is excommunicated from a Christian plantation for the crime of ‘prideful conceit’. The family consists of father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). They starts a new life, building a farm by a large forest. But the film is called The Witch, which means that large forests are no good, particularly in 17th century New England. After a few months, Katherine gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel, who subsequently disappears one day when under the care of Thomasin.
The cause of the disappearence doesn’t remain a mystery to the viewer for long. In fact, there’s little mystery in The Witch, and perhaps there ought to have been. Rather than wonder where Egger’s will drive his plot, our imaginations instead linger on the suffering he allows his characters to endure. There’s an enormous amount of style and skill in the way Egger’s realises the constitutional misery and eerie atmosphere of 17th century New England, but there’s a self-consciousness to that style that alienates emotionally from the horror that he’s trying to provoke.
But there is horror, and it’s the variety that saturates your emotions. The Witch is unsettling viewing. There’s little mystery, but ambiguity is central to Egger’s film, particularly regarding religious hysteria. What is real and what is exaggeration of the family’s faith is outwardly crucial to the concepts that Eggers is trying to convey. The Witch isn’t another genre horror movie, but rather an exercise in existential terror. There are some times and places that bear an inherent sense of dread. The New England living conditions are as gruelling as the supernatural threat that William and his family face.
There is discomfort and dread in The Witch, but there is also impatience and frustration, because the film lacks perceptive consideration of the ideas in which it engages. Psychology is a powerful element in horror but beyond the superficial, there’s little thought behind The Witch. Eggers establishes his setting and mood with admirable conviction and then recites a series of seemingly unrelated horrors for his characters to consider. There’s no coherence or conjunction to each of the elements designed to fright and unsettle. It hinders a sense of immersion that is pivotal for a film like The Witch. Ultimately, it feel like filmmakers conjuring random scare tactics, not a witch with a modus operandi. The fright trajectory is absent-minded.
The Witch is artful but there’s a certain promise to the film that goes unfulfilled. It’s an unsettling film, often for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong. The right reasons are when Eggers channels an appropriate sense of dread for the setting and situation. The wrong reasons are when the characters’ suffering is unpleasant rather than unsettling. The Witch is a wonderful film in many ways, but undeveloped potential can often leave a more lasting impression than quality.