Sunday, May 15, 2016

Video review: "The Witch"

Horror films seem to fall into two categories these days. There are the traditional slasher/paranormal fright fests, replete with nudity and gore. And then there are the outliers who get talked up as game-changers that will take the genre in a different direction. I’m not sure how much they actually succeed at this, but they at least represent a measure of striving often lacking in run-of-the-mill horror.

Last year’s “It Follows” and now “The Witch” fall into the latter category.

Set in 1600s Puritan New England, “The Witch” is the story of a family that leaves the safety of their colonial settlement to live in the remote woods, where all sorts of terrible things happen. Writer/director Robert Eggers makes a strong debut with a deeply atmospheric and downright creepy descent into repressed terrors.

The beauty of this tale is the clan’s antediluvian notions of the Holy Spirit or Satan’s malevolence residing anywhere in their environs. With our modern sensibilities, we would dismiss this as paranoia. But their superstitions prove to be true, as there really is an old hag brewing potions – and possibly other threats – residing in the forest.

Ralph Ineson is solid as the father, a fire-and-brimstone sort, as is Katie Dickie as the mentally fragile mother. The real star is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a teen girl and oldest child who becomes the locus of ill tidings. Things start with the disappearance of her baby brother, literally before her eyes, and get worse as other siblings begin babbling dark incantations.

We suspect they’re faking it at first, recalling the Salem witch trials, but later… not so much.

The dialogue can be hard to understand at times. I appreciated Eggers wanting to replicate period speech as accurately as possible; but this is one of those times that coherence should’ve been a higher priority. You might want to watch it with English subtitles turned on.

Still, if this is the new face of horror, I’ll suffer a few “thees” and “thines” as the price of admission.

Bonus features aren’t terribly extensive, but are impactful. Eggers provides a feature-length audio commentary. There is also a making-of featurette, “The Witch: A Primal Folklore,” a Q&A with a panel in Salem and a gallery of design stills.



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