The Salem Witch Trials are a stain on America’s heritage… if you never heard of Vietnam, Amerindian genocide, and Michael Moore. Before the Age of Enlightenment, everything was bad for everyone and religious delusion was common among all civilizations. Whole towns were destroyed on suspicion of possession after consuming grain contaminated with ergot, a mold with hallucinogenic properties. You could be killed for having the ability to swim or if you did not worship God the right way. The Spanish Inquisition was killing Jews centuries before “Nazi” was even a word. A lot of bad things happened at the time, opening up great potential for horror. Does The Witch capitalize off the madness of 17th Century America or does it try something else?
Following banishment from town Will, played by Ralph Ienson, takes his family into the wilderness to start anew. Things begin to spiral out of control after the crops fail and his infant son goes missing. His unstable wife Kat, played by Kate Dickie, puts the blame on their daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, as the family struggles to find answers.
Explaining what Witch did with the premise of a horror movie about Puritans would mean spoiling it. There is still plenty to talk about in terms of how it handled the element of terror, but I would like to leave as much to the imagination as I can. To that effect, I recommend skipping this review if you want to see it without knowing any details.
Implication can difficult to achieve, especially if your screenwriter is inexperienced. I had to stop implying in my work because nobody understood what was going on. The trick is to use strong visuals that tell the viewer what you want them to know without being blatant. In horror, implication can be more potent than a jump scare. From character actions to symbolism, Witch has plenty to discover if you pay attention, and some of it is quite disturbing.
Instead of being scary, Witch is mostly uncomfortable. There is a heavy feeling that evil is going on and you are in the dark. The characters sense it too and they are powerless to protect themselves. As madness erodes who they are, paranoia starts takes over. All they can do is pray and accuse, blaming each other for what they cannot comprehend. The drama is what makes it unnerving because you see good-natured people give into hysteria in the worst ways.
The performances help the implication and atmosphere. It is arguably an ensemble where the family insanity adds to the horror. Dickie is on full blast as she prays in hushed whispers and gives Thomasin dirty looks with cringe-worthy contempt in her gaze and voice. Taylor-Joy did well as the “girl everyone blames” archetype. The pain and anguish of being the scapegoat for her family’s delusion was terrifying and she sells it. Ineson was probably my favorite in the role of a withered patriarch. The guy just wants to provide for his family, but when everything goes wrong he breaks down and struggles to maintain an even temperament. It was depressing because he is one of the better characters next to the daughter.
At the start of the year I said contemporary horror is mostly trash and the only movies worth watching are from the past. The Boy was a surprise, but The Witch is superior in everyway, kind of like It Follows from last year. If you have a hankering for good, original horror, go see it.