Sunday, February 28, 2016

Horror Film Review

The Witch (2016):  This is the new horror flick over which big shot critics from the Associated Press to the Wall Street Journal have been wetting themselves.  A guy from NPR even said it joins the pantheon of all time great horror films.  I'm not saying they're wrong (except for the NPR guy, he's wrong) but ease up on the gratuitous hype.  The Witch, or The VVitch (?), does not live up to it.

We're in early 17th century New England where William (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the local church and welcomes exile.  With wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), younger yet twins Mercy and Jonas, and his newborn son, William homesteads a plot of land that borders a spooky-ass forest.  While in mid peekaboo with Thomasin, the baby vanishes, absconded by the spooky-ass forest-dwelling witch who does very bad things to the child with a knife.  William convinces the family, and himself, a wolf was the culprit.  Katherine goes a bitty nutty with grief and household tensions rise.  The twins are brats who claim the black billy goat speaks to them.  Thomasin snaps and in a misguided effort to teach Mercy a lesson, scares her little sister shitless by pretending to be a witch.  That comes back to bite her in the ass.  Anyway, Caleb and Thomasin venture into the forest to check traps and hunt.  They encounter a rabbit.  That rabbit ain't right.  It spooks the horse which throws Thomasin.  Caleb chases after the bunny and, of course, happens across an inviting cabin in front of which beckons a gorgeous and buxom woman.  Thomasin wakes up, finds her way home, and the suspicions against her sharpen.  Caleb eventually returns, naked, and quite ill.  "Ill" being code for possessed.  The twins accuse Thomasin of witchery in their shrieking, annoying way.  Caleb vomits out a poisoned apple (of course it was an apple) and after a few rapturous words regarding the Lord, dies.  The twins lapse into catatonia and Katherine goes even more batty, which may explain the scene where she sits calmly in a chair while a gigantic raven pecks through her chest and nibbles on her heart.  Not knowing who to believe, William imprisons his remaining children in a shed...with the billy goat.  Its name is Black Phillip.  The goat, not the shed.  After that, very few things go well for William and what's left of his family.

I applaud the filmmakers for their dedication to authenticity; however, 17th century New England-speak might have been a tiny bit too authentic.  That is to say, more than one line of dialogue flew right over my head.  The much-touted bleakness is...pretty fucking bleak.  The cinematographer and costume designer must have been informed the palette for this production included both colors:  brown and gray.  The music is discordant and obviously composed specifically to fray your nerves and heighten the sense of foreboding.  The climax upset me but not for the reason the filmmakers were shooting for.  It's too similar to The Last Exorcism, a film I passionately despise.  Folks up to no good gathered around a bonfire in the woods.  Oh, and levitation.  Or something.  In my opinion, the third act went off the rails when Thomasin began conversing with Black Phillip and Black Phillip spoke back.

The Skinny

Acting:  Everyone does a fine job, but I thought Scrimshaw as Caleb outshone them all.
Story:  The credits inform us this is a New England folktale.  No kidding.  To be honest, there really is nothing new here.  Heck, the TV show Salem isn't much different.  What sets The Witch apart from all previous endeavors is its stark execution.
Direction:  The pacing, while consistent, is positively glacial at the outset.  Writer/director Robert Eggers' philosophy is subtlety rather than shock.  That's fine, but it's horror film.  You need a shock or ten.
Production Values:  Despite the low budget, nothing about this film looks cheap.  Bleak and disturbing, yes, but not cheap.
Gore/FX:  There is blood and a handful of gory bits (goats, dog, the raven's handiwork) but not enough to garner an R rating.
Scares:  It made me jump not at all.  I don't have one of those fitness watch things but I'm pretty sure my pulse didn't increase either.
Ending:  Two and three-quarters acts of subtle storytelling and then we get a talking devil goat and flying chicks in the woods.  Jarring and kind of goofy.
Verdict:  Should you see The Witch?  It's well made, has its moments, and is interesting in the way a History Channel documentary is interesting, but I can't recommend it as a horror flick.  It's simply not scary enough.

Rating:  3 out of 5

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