REVIEW: The Witch

15 02 2016

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

Forms of storytelling never really die – the functions they serve simply migrate and reappear somewhere else. The folk tale is one such manner of expression that seems rather obsolete in the modern world, not yielding any overtly major works in the past two centuries or so. But director Robert Eggers identifies where they went in “The Witch,” a film that bears the subtitle “A New England Folktale.” The moral panic and blatant grandstanding on right and wrong has found a comfortable home in the horror genre.

Just drawing this parallel is a revelation in and of itself. In many ways, “The Witch” feels like the ultimate movie of its ilk, since it draws such power from returning to the roots of American anxieties. Horror films often stage dichotomies like destiny and fate or good and evil, pitting these two impersonal forces against each other in an often frustratingly nebulous fashion. Eggers finds the terror in calling a spade a spade, explicitly staging his film around the binary conflict to which all others really refer: God vs. Satan.

This open acknowledgment of the dueling forces not only puts us in the mindset of the film’s deeply religious characters – a Puritanical family living on the outskirts of their new colony – but also untethers the story from expectations of reality. Eggers devises a scenario where he can have it both ways, allowing “The Witch” to take place in a very gritty, grounded reality while venturing into the supernatural. The resulting tale plays like the mashup between “The Exorcist” and “The Crucible” that no one knew they needed to see.

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