The Witch still
Image: © 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Last Night I Watched: ‘The Witch’

As part of my Film undergraduate degree, by far my favourite module was Horror and the Gothic. Upon returning to Warwick, it was my pleasure to re-join a number of former students and help start a screening and discussion group and horror films. Through this group I was able to screen and watch the 2015 film: The Witch. Prior to watching this film, it had long been on my radar as a different kind of horror tale with its period New England setting but I’d never pursued it for fear it would be one of many modern horror films, grey, bloody but otherwise just a series of scares without a greater meaning or interest behind them. Being wrong is a wonderful feeling sometimes. If you’re after a film to chill the bone through the rugged Winter months, then few do it quite as efficiently or with as much confidence as The Witch manages.

Set in New England in its earliest days, the film tells the story of a family who are exiled from their plantation and are forced to live on the edges of both society and the wild unknown. On their doorstep is a foreboding forest, in which sinister forces conspire to abduct their children, starting with their youngest child. The atmosphere in this film is one of its greatest strengths as immediately the woods feel intimidating, the world hostile and bleak and the family helpless against the forces which are about to invade their world. While the dominant grey colouring is fairly typical of the genre, especially in the mid 2010’s, it works well here to emphasis the setting’s lifelessness.

If you’re after a film to chill the bone through the rugged Winter months, then few do it quite as efficiently or with as much confidence as The Witch manages

The script too is sharp and well crafted to reflect the time period which it is set. The vocabulary is limited but the entire cast, including the children, all shine in their roles of conveying their anger, disgust and fear, and the way in which the emphasis is held on witchcraft and religion makes it clear that no one can physically or mentally escape the space of the film. It feels threatening and claustrophobic, and you feel the characters struggle to communicate with each other as their world collapses around them. It’s a tragic, beautiful piece of work overall and it grips you from start to finish, which is impressive given how much the film relies on atmosphere and how little the titular monster is on screen.

The witch herself does what many great horror monsters do, she avoids being seen for the majority of the runtime, but lets the characters and audience conjure her instead. While she is revealed early on, and the images of her are sickening to behold, given what she does, her precise nature is never made explicit. She exhibits fairy tale imagery and plays menacingly around with the characters, but ultimately the family in question, with their puritanical religious beliefs and domestic struggles, are the real destructive force at play.

It’s a tragic, beautiful piece of work overall and it grips you from start to finish, which is impressive given how much the film relies on atmosphere and how little the titular monster is on screen

The witch is ultimately a catalyst of bubbling tension, a being who for a long time is more of a background force than a direct threat. As the film escalates, the lines of what is supernatural and what is not begin to blur, and with the baby being the first to go in the film, it’s never in doubt that none of the family are ever safe from what’s coming for them. The film’s climax is unsettling and leaves off with images which will haunt and beg questions of the audience for hours after the credits roll.

The Witch, overall, is a solid horror film which is more preoccupied with its setting and character than presenting its monster as something to defeat. It’s a complex, often disturbing piece of filmmaking, and will likely stand up to scrutiny as one of the best horror films of the decade.

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