Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Witch

3.5/4

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content and Graphic Nudity

"The Witch" is an indie horror film that has been gathering steam for the past few months.  A24, a distribution company known primarily for independent and art-house fare, believes that it has enough appeal to turn a tidy profit in a wide release.  It will be interesting to see how it fares, since it is definitely not mainstream.

The film is rightly classified as a horror film, although it's a non-traditional one.  Anyone looking for copious amounts of violence, gore and sex is going to be disappointed.  There is nudity, although considering the context, it's not going to do much for the libido.  Writer/director Robert Eggers places more emphasis on atmosphere and growing dread rather than cheap shocks and bloody viscera.

New England, 1630.  A family of seven leaves a populous plantation due to a religious dispute.  They are William (Ineson), the patriarch, his wife Katherine (Dickie), and their children, Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Scrimshaw), Mercy (Grainger), Jonas (Dawson) and infant Samuel.  They set up a farm a days ride from the plantation, but it is not going well since William has little skill as a farmer.  Then one day Samuel disappears while playing with Thomasin.  Stress, fear and ominous omens turns a happy family against one another, and that's just the start of it.

The performances are exceptional.  The film is presented from the point-of-view of Thomasin, and Anya Taylor-Joy, a relative newcomer, is up to the challenge.  She's a natural in front of the camera and has no trouble with the antiquated English that makes up her dialogue.  Ralph Ineson is also very good as the even-tempered William, bringing guilt and fear to the character.  Kate Dickie is excellent as a woman who, in her grief, turns to religious fanaticism.  Harvey Scrimshaw isn't up to their level, but he's not too bad.  Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are effective as the little tykes.

Don't expect lots of cheap shocks and twists from "The Witch."  It's not that kind of movie.  Eggers is smart enough to know that taking the easy road would only cheapen his film.  Instead, he finds the horror in the mundane in a similar way to "The Blair Witch Project" (never have goats or rabbits been so scary).  In fact, this film has a similar feel to the 1999 smash hit, although without the shaky cam.

With a movie this unusual, it's tough to tell whether the risk will pay off.  The response to niche movies like this is always hard to predict.  If it becomes a hit, it's going to be massive, but I doubt it.  It's a little too obtuse for true mainstream acceptance (the dialogue is taken from documents written around the time in which the film takes place, and most horror fans don't want to work their brains while watching a horror flick.  My hunch is that the majority of its success will come when it arrives on Blu Ray.  It's that kind of movie.  One thing is for sure, though: it's going to have a loud, passionate fan base.  How big that is remains to be seen.

For those who take the chance, they're in for a most unnerving experience.

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