A lot of times when you tell people that you really liked a horror movie the first question they ask is “Was it scary?” Now, that’s not a requirement for me to enjoy myself at a horror showing. Horror can be funny or gruesome or just eccentric or interesting enough to make questions about whether or not it was scary to even be relevant. With The Witch, however, I can actually answer that question bluntly & with enthusiasm. The Witch is a scary movie. It’s a haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan, so it has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was a scary movie, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying.
What makes The Witch scary, though, might also prevent it from becoming a commercial success. With the full title The Witch: A New England Folklore, this is a film much more concerned with upholding traditions in the mythology surrounding witchcraft than it is with entertaining its audience with a kill-a-minute sense of modern horror momentum. Far from the cinematic witchery you’d see in films like Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, or The Withes of Eastwick, The Witch is scary because it feels real. It strays from the temptations of movie magic escapism by telling a small, grounded story about a slowly-escalating supernatural event in the most muted, straightforward methods possible. I can see a lot of audiences seeking a typical horror movie experience being turned off by The Witch‘s art house sense of hushed drama & pacing, but that’s exactly what makes it such an engaging, terrifying experience if you can get on its wavelength.
Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. The titular witch is an ugly, uncaring, unapologetically Satanic force of Nature. Her devout, pious victims are a paranoid family of many superstitions, all of which seem to prove true one at a time as if the witch were systematically confirming every horrific thing ever said about her & her kind. The strange thing about this set up is that the witch checks into cause havoc in occasional spurts (stealing an infant, seducing the weak-willed, spreading sickness & ritually participating in genital mutilation, etc.), but for the most part her presence is felt, but not seen. The main source of terror in the film is the cruelty of Nature at large. The witch is just one weapon in Nature’s arsenal, which is revealed to be quite large & varied by the time the film reaches its stunning conclusion. The Puritan farm family suffers many blows at Nature’s uncaring, ungodly hand, especially as their religious faith is tested & strained by heartbreaking loss & physical pain.
The old-timey vibe aimed for in The Witch is not only a matter of aesthetic. It’s essential to the film’s entire existence. The Witch is set in a time when its tales of cursed goats, Satan’s attempts to recruit the youth, and minor sins like “prideful conceit” causing you to fall out of God’s protective favor would’ve been very real, tangible concerns. As the film’s central family fails to navigate these Old World dangers on New World turf while remaining intact as a single unit, a deeply unnerving effect swells from the nightmare sound of the string arrangements in the film’s gloriously-evil sounding musical score. The Witch doesn’t solely evoke its 17th Century time frame by peppering its dialogue with “thee”s & “thy”s and lighting its characters like an old Dutch painter. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel like fairy tales like Hansel & Gretel and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can be when it too closely plays by modern rules. The Witch is a scary movie, but what’s impressive is that it scares you with an outdated threat of a tratidional folklore that’s no longer supposed to feel as real as it does here.