Where does one even begin with “The Witch?” It’s been marketed as the best horror movie of 2016, but it won an award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic category. It claims to be based on several New England folk tales, thus making it extremely fictional. However, the film takes full quotes from actual records of the Salem witch trials, or so it claims.
It is a psychological thriller, a David Lynchian surrealist piece and a Tarantino-like schlock gore fest, riding on the coattails of films like “The Revenant” (both are set in the early stages of the United States and have blood flowing by the gallons) or “The Babadook” and “It Follows” (unseen horrors that torment people and become very real very fast). Despite this, “The Witch” doesn’t become a film of its own, but rather a barely passable film in any of the genres it tries to emulate.
The film follows a Puritan family banished from its plantation community in New England due to an unknown heresy committed by the head of the family, William (Ralph Ineson). As result, William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, respectively) must brave it out in the American wilderness.
The titular monster comes into play about 15 minutes into the film, and then promptly removes itself from the plot until it becomes convenient for it to resurface. With the only reason anyone would go watch “The Witch” in the first place almost completely gone from the plot, the viewer must endure an hour and a half of almost indecipherable colonial accents growling at each other while recreating the more boring parts of the first half of yet another movie about the fur trapping in the American woods,“The Revenant.”
For all of its faults, what are most impressive about “The Witch” are the visuals. Not only does the film manage to be a historically accurate depiction of 17th-century America, or at least one of the best ones in film in the last few years, but it doesn’t make it dark and gritty like one would expect of a period horror film.
The world of “The Witch” is as real and brutal as life in the wilderness of New England was at the time, and the uncomfortable unknown of the forest surrounding the protagonists’ home gives the perfect sense of just how alone they really are. Pair this with some very creative camera shots and an artistic direction that makes almost every moment of this movie screenshot-worthy, and you’ll get a sense of how innovative the filmography of “The Witch” really is.
But that’s where anything new and creative ends. Plot-wise, “The Witch” tries its hardest to not fall into any of the clichés of the many genres it can be classified in. It all falls flat, however, and makes the movie seem like a weak reproduction of the blandest elements of each genre.
Even though “The Witch” isn’t technically about the Salem witch trials, a good deal of the movie is a “he said, she said” storm of the family members accusing one another of being the witch. Though it’s made very clear in the first few minutes that the witch isn’t any of them, all the accusations border on belonging in a TV courtroom drama.
The Witch shows up in the last half hour, stirs up some ruckus and it all leads into an ending that’s more laughably surreal than genuinely bone-chilling. If there is any way to describe the buildup toward all this, it’s being slowly crushed by an advancing steamroller, only to have the driver floor it as he’s about to roll over your head. It’s just as dull and suddenly shocking.
All in all, “The Witch” isn’t necessarily bad. It’s got a little something for everyone, but tries too hard to be everything. If anything, it’ll eventually be perfect for those Netflix Halloween marathons when you need a movie to fill the gap between “The Babadook” and “The Shining.”