I didn’t really like this film but I was with some people who did so it has made me ruminate on horror films and why this one didn’t work for me. I don’t mind a horror film every now and then. I prefer them to be suspenseful, to imply rather than to show, to build tension and have me hiding my head behind a pillow when it gets really scary. There still needs to be a believable story and good characters that you care about. And when the violence comes, ideally it shouldn’t make you laugh.My friend Alex says that all horror movies make you laugh, that’s part of the experience, and I know he’s right for lots of pretty standard horror of the Hollywood variety. Laughter helps relieve the tension and separate you from the film. But surely this isn’t true of all horror?
So, what horror films have I seen that fit my ideals above? Not many. Ringu (the Japanese one). Wolf Creek. The Vanishing (the Dutch one). The Sixth Sense. Cat People. Let the Right One In. Alien. The Shining. Maybe not everyone would call these horror. I think too it is about the frame of mind you are in when you watch them. You need to want to be scared. I remember watching Paranormal Activity one night on my own and I certainly didn’t laugh. The story and the characters need to be compelling enough that you can’t laugh when everything goes awry.
So, that brings me to The Witch. It’s a nicely styled US production, set in 1630s puritanical New England. It reminded me in setting and style of The Village, the M Night Shyamalan suspense with a tricksy ending. A family is expelled from a village as their devout beliefs conflict with those of the community. We are immediately drawn to Thomasin, the eldest daughter, and as the family sets up a new home and grows corn near an ominous forest, we see the dynamics of the family begin to develop. The mother is brittle and a bit mad (she is Lysa from Game of Thrones in a similar role), the father is loud and ineffectual, Caleb is Thomasin’s ally and there are two younger twins (who you keep wanting to put in the naughty corner for time out) and a baby.
We are given hints that something scary is building. The forest is a dark and forbidding place, there are animals that stare you in the eye, there is screeching discordant music playing. Then the baby goes missing when Thomasin is looking after him and we see that there is a witch and she is doing bad things.
The suspense in the story is based on keeping us off-kilter about what is actually happening. Several people in the family accuse each other of being witches and there are some moments when we are not sure what is real and what is imagined. For a while this works – the scenes with Caleb are genuinely chilling and they absorb you into this monochrome, harsh world where religious beliefs seem poor protection against elemental forces much more ancient.
Thinking about the films I mentioned above, all of them are about something other than just the horror. Alien is about courage, The Vanishing is about love and needing to know, The Sixth Sense is about love and letting go, Let the Right One In is about love and dependency. Okay, maybe Wolf Creek is about nothing but being scared – hang on, no, it’s about being alone and our vulnerability when away from community. I think this is what is missing from The Witch for me. There are no layers. There was potential for them, the family’s corn crop was blighted and I thought this might be a reference to ergot poisoning* but this was not developed. All of the characters other than Thomasin and Caleb were two-dimensional and so I didn’t really care about their fates.
The ending was not chilling. The last few scenes were relatively farcical – it’s hard to make a goat look threatening – and a bit of a let down, an easy resolution. I did laugh, quite a lot, and I don’t think the filmmaker really meant me to.
2 stars (sorry Hugh)
* Fun fact: Ergot is a fungus that causes hallucinations and is thought to be the cause of many of the outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria and accusations in the past (although usually through rye). LCD is derived from it, hence the name of the 90s band, The Ergot Derivative.