Over the last several years, independent studio A24 has quietly produced and/or distributed some of the best horror movies this decade. It’s a list that includes Under the Skin, Green Room, Hereditary, The Monster, and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. And this past summer, Midsommar was their latest release to win over horror fans. To date, however, The Witch may be A24’s best movie. Despite its period setting and old English dialogue, Robert Eggers’s directorial debut was a box office and critical success. The uninitiated can still find this horror classic bewitching Netflix.
In 17th century New England, a Plymouth colony banishes William and his family over a religious dispute. Shortly thereafter, the Puritan family build a new home by a large, remote forest. But when newborn Samuel mysteriously goes missing, strange forces begin tormenting the family. Eldest son, Caleb, soon falls ill. And mother, Katherine, slowly goes mad, suspecting that her daughter, Thomasin, is secretly a witch.
The Witch Eschews Jumps for Unsettling Scares
Slow-burn horror is an art. Filmmakers like Ti West and Ari Aster have turned in some of the genre’s best examples of the slow-burn with movies like The House of the Devil and Hereditary. In slow-burn horror, jump scares and loud sounds are downplayed in favour of atmosphere, disturbing imagery, and increasing tension. Like West and Aster, Eggers eschews jumps for an unsettling tone. The Witch is quiet, contemplative horror. Nonetheless, from its opening scene, Eggers establishes a sense of dread that lingers throughout the movie.
Most of The Witch’s horror is implied rather than explicitly shown.
Most of The Witch’s horror is implied rather than explicitly shown. Baby Samuel’s disappearance happens quickly – and unseen – and Eggers never shows his fate. But the image of a naked older witch rubbing herself with what is clearly the child’s blood is more disturbing than what you’ll find in the average slasher movie. The slow unhinging of the Puritan family and increasing paranoia taps into the same psychological horror as classics like Rosemary’s Baby or, more recently, The Invitation.
The Witch Transcends Its Period Piece Roots
In addition to its haunting atmosphere, The Witch benefits from its ambiguous storytelling. Certainly, one of the predominant ideas that runs through The Witch is faith and religious Puritanism. Eggers never explains why the colony expels William and his family. We know that it stems from a religious dispute. And if William thinks Puritans lack faith, then we can infer that he’s particularly rigid. Yet in spite of William’s rigid adherence to religious practice, supernatural forces still surround his family. Ultimately, William’s faith betrays him.
…one of the predominant ideas that runs through The Witch is faith and religious Puritanism.
What’s compelling about The Witch’s story is that it lends itself to a variety of interpretations. That is, Eggers never directly makes any clear statements. Moreover, The Witch’s religious themes are arguably more relevant today even with the movie’s 17th century setting. In a world where religious fanaticism threatens women’s reproductive rights, for example, Thomasin’s plight isn’t as far removed as its setting.
Black Phillip A Haunting Horror Villain
Though witches are very much real in The Witch, Eggers eventually reveals that the threat was always much closer to William and his family. Black Phillip’s reveal as the true malevolent force when he gores William is a subtly shocking turn. And that’s not even the best moment. No, arguably, The Witch executes its most disturbing scare when Black Phillip speaks. Specifically, Eggers demonstrates how disturbing scares can be created with shadows and suggestion. We don’t see Satan or Black Phillip transform. Instead, Eggers uses shadows and a haunting voice – simple techniques – to elicit shocks. The Witch’s final scene of Thomasin floating up among the trees deserves to be considered among the best horror movie endings.
The Witch One of the Best Horror Movies of 2015
Who would have thought a period piece movie in old English would become a horror classic? In 2015, The Witch emerged as one of the best horror movies of the year. Several years later, The Witch has only gotten better with subsequent viewings. Given its methodical pacing, Eggers’ masterpiece may not be for everyone. But for fans of slow burn horror, The Witch should be required viewing.