The Witch, which marks the film debut of writer-director Robert Eggers, has received considerable praise from critics (though not unanimous, by any means) since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. I suspect that the praise is largely due to the fact that The Witch offers us some things we rarely get in contemporary horror movies: deliberate pacing, for one thing, coupled with a creepy mood that lingers over the proceedings like a fog. But when you pull back the film’s artificial successes, and the occasional moments of real creepiness, what’s underneath is a lackluster horror film, certainly not the good time I was hoping for.
The Witch is about a family of English colonists, ostracized by their Puritan society (for apparently having more strict religious views than even the Puritans), who relocate to the gloomy, ominous wilderness, where they are—unbeknownst to them at first—visited by a conniving witch. (We see very little of her, a smart move on the part of the director; she’s almost as elusive as the Blair Witch.) Eggers, working in the grand tradition of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, has fashioned some rather convincing era-appropriate dialogue: his family spouts Calvinist dogma like they’re saying “good morning,” and often their talk about religion—mostly concerning humankind’s sinfulness and God’s methods of atoning for it—sounds as though lifted from actual Puritan prayers. (So few period pieces try hard enough to get the language right.) Indeed, if mastering a milieu were the only requirement for a great movie, The Witch has achieved something remarkable.
But for all its impressive craftsmanship—not to mention the film’s admittedly effective use of restraint—The Witch does not work. No doubt the Puritans have been a worthy subject for horror stories, what with their almost too-good-to-be-true devotion to repression and punishment, but Eggers hasn’t done anything inventive with this theme. The Witch is too obvious, and anyone who’s seen a live performance of The Crucible (or watched the 1996 film, which is riveting in a shameless way) or suffered with Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sympathetic and terrifying Scarlet Letter has already experienced almost everything that The Witch has to offer.
The difference between The Witch and those two pop lit classics? The witch is real here, full-on supernatural powers. There is no third-act-of-Scooby-Doo-unmasking-the-villain scene. Eggers lets us know right away that we’re in for a horror movie in the most literal sense, that he’s not interested in allegories. But Eggers doesn’t know what to do with his film: the plight of the family takes the focus: bewildered patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), haggard wife Katherine (Katie Dickie), their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy), who emerges as the protagonist, and 12-year-old son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). There are three other children: twins named Mercy and Jonas, who are just about the most insufferable children on the planet, and an infant named Samuel. Thomasin is training for the day when she will be a wife and mother: We see her caring for the twins and the baby, tending to the animals and the garden, washing her dad’s clothes in a muddy brook. Caleb is a devoted son, helping his dad set traps in the woods and working the fields, where the corn and other crops waver, as if even they have fallen under the witch’s spell.
We are so steeped in the miserably austere life of this family that when baby Samuel disappears right out from under Thomasin (in one of the film’s creepiest, subtlest moments), it’s almost underwhelming. We wait for grim death to touch everybody. Soon blame erupts between family members, and as the witch’s apparent curse over them manifests itself in other ways (like when Caleb also disappears), the blame morphs into suspicion. (Which is when The Witch really starts to feel like The Crucible, with everyone accusing everyone else of wicked witchcraft.)
The Witch is essentially Arthur Miller’s play, on an even more microscopic level, stripped of all the subtext about Communism. I would allow that Eggers is going after the dangers of moralism, but his movie is so concentrated on this one family, this family that was too intense for their own Puritan brothers, that we’re left with little insight about religion, and that spelled out right from the beginning. Eggers favors the literal horror experience without any flair for it. He should have looked to Dario Argento, director of the supremely insane and delightful witch chiller Suspiria, or Guillermo del Toro, whose Crimson Peak, though not a great horror film, was stylish. (Eggers achieves this level of horror only at the end, when we behold a group of naked women chanting around a bonfire in the woods, all of them presumably agents of the devil.) The Witch gets an A+ as a diorama made for someone’s English lit class. But as a horror movie, it’s a slog. And we can’t even play Communist Scare Wheel of Fortune while we watch, so where’s the fun in that?