It’s not often that I watch a movie that profoundly scares, upsets or disturbs me, but which is a tough one to recommend. Such was the case with Requiem For A Dream, for instance: I watched it alone, at night, in my dorm room, and it stayed with me for weeks. Although not a horror flick per se, it terrified me far more than any monster or haunted house movie ever could, because in the case of Requiem, the horror factor was all too real. It’s not for everyone, therefore I wouldn’t be quick to recommend it to a lot of people, unless they have the stomach for it.
Torture porn movies are also famously hard to recommend, even to a horror fan, because I realize not everyone shares my tolerance for gore. Yes, they fit the bill in that they’re scary, but they’re also quite disgusting, and a far cry from the type of horror flicks that seem to top ‘best of’ lists, such as The Babadook, Insidious, The Conjuring and every type of paranormal activity movie that usually leaves me cold. (The one exception to the rule was The Blair Witch Project, and only because of the is-this-real-or-not hype surrounding its original release, back when the internet and social media weren’t readily available to help debunk urban legends).
All of this is by way of explaining that, for me, what classifies a movie as ‘horror’, or at least good horror, is quite subjective.
This shouldn’t be the case for professional critics compiling lists of the best horror movies of the year. If anything, there needs to be some horror element in these films to warrant their inclusion in these lists.
Alas, that doesn’t always seem to be the case. I’ve been scouring the internet looking for good horror movie suggestions for some time, and, while a few of my recent favorites (chief among them, Don’t Breathe and The Invitation) seem to earn a spot on these lists, making them at least semi-reliable, others haven’t been exactly been big hits. (Enemy and Berlin Syndrome definitely come to mind.)
Still, when so many so-called experts seem to agree on one movie, it stands to reason that it’s actually worth watching, right?
Well… not quite. In the case of The Witch, which topped several of these lists and was described as atmospheric and definitely, absolutely scary… not so much.
The movie focuses on a family or puritan settlers in 1600’s New England, who gets banished from their little community and set up camp in a secluded area by the woods. The patriarch cultivates a small farm, complete with pitiful corn crops and a handful of animals, and every interaction the family members seem capable of having is always very heavy on religion.
So much so that it’s hard to actually understand what the hell they’re talking about. Which brings me to one of my perpetual gripes regarding horror flicks: a loud, dissonant score paired with barely audible whispers might be widely regarded as appropriate sound design for a horror flick, but the end result is simply annoying. I don’t want to reach for the remote every time someone speaks, and then have to turn the sound way down whenever a few ominous notes are supposed to denote danger or an evil presence. It’s cheap and contrite and trope-y and just plain aggravating; instead of adding to the viewing experience, it becomes distracting, if not a hindrance.
This was especially true in the case of The Witch, which featured period-accurate dialogue that was almost indecipherable. Was that how Puritans talked to each other back them? Possibly. But while I admit that it lent some authenticity to the movie, it became one more element I had to contend with, rather than enjoy.
Trouble for this family of eight begins when older daughter Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her infant brother Samuel and the baby suddenly disappears. We see a naked woman, presumably the witch, fondle the poor baby somewhere in the woods nearby, and are then treated to a gory tableau that suggests the witch did something horrible to the kid.
Thomasin’s parents are distraught, her mother Catherine much more so than her stoic father William, who is quick to attribute this tragedy to God, concluding that it was punishment for their pride and contentment. Okay then. This uber-religious crap continues throughout the movie, but fails to feel any less insane than it does in the beginning.
William secretly takes his eldest son Caleb to the woods to check up on the traps he set there, even though the woods are off limits to all the kids since Samuel’s disappearance. He appears to be terribly inept at surviving in the wilderness, failing not only to grow a proper crop, but even to kill a poor rabbit they encounter in the woods, and, later, allows his wife to blame their daughter for a missing silver cup, which he had pawned a while ago. All he seems to be good at is splitting wood, which Thomasin even points out later, basically winking at the audience, thus delivering one of the few good moments in the entire movie.
Meanwhile, a very annoying set of twins (the youngest remaining siblings Mercy and Jonas) keep singing ridiculous songs about Black Phillip (their goat), the little girl plays silly games pretending that she’s a witch, and Thomasin has had enough and scares the bejesus out of her sister in order to shut her up. Is this supposed to make us suspect that Thomasin is somehow involved in witchcraft? Probably, but it fails miserably. Still, Mercy seems convinced, because duh, she’s a young stupid kid. Katherine seems to share that belief and quickly finds a solution to their problem: send Thomasin to serve a family back at the settlement, thus getting rid of her evil daughter and the extra mouth to feed. Win-win, but she won’t be up for any Mother Of The Year awards any time soon.
At some point, Caleb decides to steal into the woods in the middle of the night and check on those traps, but Thomasin won’t let him go alone. When they get there, they inexplicably split up, and Caleb finds his way to a cabin from which emerges a beautiful woman who approaches, kisses him – and as she does, her hands turn skeletal, thus giving us the first of exactly two jump-scares in this movie.
Naturally, this is the final straw for Katherine, who blames Thomasin and accuses her of having made a pact with the devil. Mercy is quick to corroborate that belief. When Caleb returns, his body full of scratches, hallucinating and talking gibberish, while the twins are (again, inexplicably) sleeping through the whole ruckus and the argument that ensues, the case against Thomasin is somehow solidified. Still, the girl won’t go down without a fight, and turns the blame onto her twin siblings and the black goat they’re always talking/singing to, because apparently the devil often takes the form of a goat.
Caleb dies and the already half-crazy Katherine is now completely nuts [Kate Dickie seems to excel in this type of role]. Unable to decide which of his children is the one who made a pact with the devil, William decides to lock all of them up in the barn with the goats and boards it up for good measure. No Father Of The Year awards for this guy, either.
During the night, Katherine wakes to see Caleb holding baby Samuel. The apparition even talks to her, and she decides to breastfeed the baby, but when we cut back to this scene, it’s a crow pecking away at her breast [again, what is it with Kate Dickie and creepy breast feedings?]
Meanwhile, all three kids are terrified when a naked old witch appears in the barn and starts feeding on the goats. The next morning, William goes to check on them but only finds Thomasin (and the poor mutilated goats) in the barn, the planks he’d used to board it up all torn apart. We get the second jump scare of the movie, this time courtesy of Black Phillip, who gores the poor father a couple of times and takes off.
Katerine goes outside, finds only Thomasin left standing, and tries to choke her, convinced she was the culprit after all. In the struggle, Thomasin reaches for the hatchet William had dropped moments before and bashes her mother’s head in.
Later, she sees Black Phillip and asks him what he wants. The goat apparently takes human form, tells her to undress and follows her into the woods. Thomasin hears some ominous chanting and watches as a coven of naked witches start to float. She figures what the hell, and floats along with them above the trees. THE END.
I’m sorry, but aside from a ridiculous premise and an even stupider ending, there was nothing remotely chilling or scary about the whole movie, unless you count the terrifying account of life in the puritan 1600’s. The performances weren’t bad – Anya Taylor-Joy was much better in this one than she was in Split – but whoever rated The Witch this high has a bit of explaining to do as far as I’m concerned.
Even if you ignore the fact that there was very little horror in what was universally classified as a horror movie, the only thing The Witch had going for it was a general creepiness, in that it was atmospheric and dark – plus, religious zealots tend to up the creepy factor in pretty much any circumstance.
Overall, I count this as a waste of a couple of hours.