Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Let me tell you a little something about the stressful circumstances that have led to this review. This has nothing to do with The Witch so if you’re here strictly for that, go ahead and skip past the next paragraph.

Today started off well enough. My property class was cancelled; I knew that before I woke up. This meant I only had a torts class sitting between me and loads of free to time to study, nap, cook, read, watch basketball, or whatever else. This stream of consciousness thinking about all the possibilities the day was ripe with was enough to distract me from the fact that property was my morning class, not my afternoon class. I downloaded the new Nyck Caution mixtape, Disguise the Limit, to listen to later (and it’s absolute flames, check it out). After a nice shower I hopped atop my bike and peddled towards what I thought was my morning torts class, a class that in actuality is scheduled for 2:00 pm. I even left my house a tad early since I’d been craving some boba. As usual I biked listening to music and sports radio because I live far from campus and rather not think about the distance. After some technical difficulties with the lid machine I got my boba and again worked my way towards school. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bike cop. I didn’t even know if I was doing anything wrong, in fact I was sure of it, but I was absolutely certain he’d find something to pull me over for. It was like when the professor asks a question and no one raises their hand but you just KNOW they’re going to call your name for the answer. What do you know, as sure as Donald Drumpf is a racist this dude points a finger at me, “Pull over, let’s have a talk.” 10 minutes later I was again biking, milk tea in one hand and citation for biking with headphones on in another. I pulled into campus a bit less cheery than I was when I woke. As the great Marshawn Lynch said, “I know I’m gon get got but I’m gon get mine more than I get got though” so I headed though those doors determined to salvage the morning. That was the exact moment it dawned on me that I didn’t have class for 3 hours, I had confused my schedule. Damn. It’s ok, I already made the bike ride, I might as well sit in the library and do some work for a few hours. I was on a roll 20 minutes into my studies but everything changed when the fire nation attacked, and by the fire nation I mean my allergies. In a city like Davis it was only a matter of time befoe the itchy eyes and sneezing started but I’d been lucky to avoid it up until then. When it rains it pours and today I’ve been rained on enough to solve California’s water crisis. After 3 sneezes I walked out because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit in there with what was about to happen. As soon as I left the room I sneezed close to 20 times in a row and simply left the entire building. I put on my Indiana Jones cap and went hunting for my holy grail, Zyrtec. Did I find any? Of course not! Utterly defeated I stumbled into Panera Bread, still sneezing, with eyes more red than a college freshman who just discovered the Devil’s lettuce. While pouring my coffee I saw a wheel chaired man struggling with the front doors; I set my coffee down and helped him. The old man looked to me and said, “thank you…fuck doors.” with that thought in mind I took a seat and decided that maybe my day wasn’t as bad as it seemed. That’s the story of how I found myself at Panera Bread with enough free time to finally write another movie review.

Thank you to those of you who read that above paragraph! Ultimately though this IS a movie review blog so let’s get to it.  The Witch (2016) is writer-director Robert Eggers’ directorial debut and damn does he deliver. I came across the trailer for this film a few months back and it was so mesmerizing that I had to watch it two more times to soak it all in. I showed the trailer to Liz soon after and we both agreed we had to watch it as soon as it came out. Here, see for yourself:

See? You can immediately feel that it’s not your standard horror film. There are no jump scares, all the tension stems from the music and drab visuals, you can tell that this is a movie that’s dripping with atmosphere. All of those aspects of the trailer are thankfully highly representative of the film. Too often trailers end up being absolutely nothing like the movie (I refused to be burned by The Purge series again!) but this is not one of those times. This is a movie that is absolutely full of tension but none of the thrills are cheap.

I’ll go ahead and introduce the cast and also praise it. The acting and casting is absolutely one of the best parts of the movie. Everyone involved did a fantastic job and was extremely convincing. This might be due to the fact that essentially the whole cast is relatively unknown. The film’s most well known star is the mother, Kate Dickie, of Game of Thrones breastfeeding fame. The father, William, is played by Jesus Christ look alike Ralph Ineson. And I don’t say Jesus Christ look alike to be funny, I’m pretty sure he was supposed to look like Jesus for symbolic purposes. The film’s best performance comes courtesy of Anya Taylor-Joy, a complete unknown who plays the role of Thomasin, the family’s oldest child. I’m certain we’ll be hearing her name in the future because her performance here surely put her on the map.  Similarly, Harvey Scrimshaw delivers a knockout performance as the second oldest child, Caleb. The rest of the family is rounded out by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson playing twins Mercy and Jonas. Even these two little ones give good performance in their limited roles.

The story starts with the family on trial and ultimately exiled from their Puritan New England community. They set out to find a new home and settle on a decently sized plot of land by the creepy woods, what could possibly go wrong? Maybe I’m just too used to the city but if you decide to live by the woods I just assume you’re gonna get eaten, killed The Strangers (2008) style, chased by Acromantulas, or face the same dilemmas this family did. But I’ll forgive that because these were different times and settling by the woods just meant easy access to building materials and probably plenty of game to hunt. The family builds a pretty sweet house and farm and everything seems to be going well but then as subtly as a slap in the face everything goes wrong. The family’s newborn baby disappears, the crops fail, the woods end up being devoid of animals, and the family’s faith is repeatedly tested.

One of my favorite things about this movie is the cinematography. Jarin Blaschke nails it in depicting everything that is creepy about the woods. The remoteness and massiveness of the woods is one of the scariest things about the movie. To make it more clear think of those times when you’ve sat up in bed at 2:00 am, unable to fall asleep, thinking “Whoa, we’re less than specks of dust in this massive universe.” For those of you less existentially inclined, an even better example, think of floating over the Mariana Trench knowing that you can only see a few feet below you and also knowing the water stretches far deeper than you can even comprehend. You know you’re probably safe but there are countless of unseen creatures, massive and miniscule, that could end your life. And maybe, just maybe, Cthulhu himself is staring right at you. Similarly, the woods are dauntingly huge and confusing, one wrong turn and you may never find your way back. Beyond the sheer size of the woods is also the fact that the woods hide unseen evil. Every scene in the woods creates the impression that the family is not quite familiar enough with it to be able to wander into it carefree. Speaking of camerawork, I love that the scariness did not come from spastic jump cuts. The scariness came from the camera lingering much longer than you’d like on the same spots, you are powerless to escape from whatever may come. If you were there in person you would’ve turn around and ran a long time ago but here you’re forced to stare into the danger.

The lighting in this movie was also top notch. There wouldn’t be any tension in any of these scenes if it were not for the superb lighting. Given the time period the only sources of light once the sun set were moonlight and lanterns, creating the opportunity for menacing shadows and limited visibility.

I already talked about the acting but all the acting chops in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the story was weak. As you might’ve guessed, I really liked the story. The story was impressive not because it was a masterpiece that blew your mind but because it withholds just the right amount and right kinds of information. This is NOT a movie that tries to explain its entire universe or the mechanisms by which it operates. This is a movie where you observe a family’s faith being tested and struggling against an almost entirely unseen evil they cannot comprehend. You get just enough allusions to classic children’s folktales of the past with the twins’ songs and the imagery of the red cape. You get classic witch lore like the idea of bathing in blood for power and mentions to the book of witches. You get biblical references to things like the Book of Job and how this family feels like they’re being similarly tested. You get references to demonic entities and symbols through exorcisms and the imagery of the goat. All of this and more combines to make you see that this family exists in a rich world and while we may not ever find out exactly how all of it works, we know that it is there. At the end there were a few moments before the actual ending where I thought the movie would just fade to black but I’m glad that it didn’t because the actual ending was fantastic. The ending strikes a great balance between giving closure and leaving enough unexplained to keep you thinking.

I want to make a quick comparison that I have no doubts most people won’t relate to. Watching this movie made me feel a lot like I did playing the video game Bloodborne in the way the story is dripping with atmosphere, tension, and a deep lore that remains mostly unexplained.

Obviously I have nothing but praise for the movie, keep that in mind when I say that the music is my favorite part. That’s how good the music was. Mark Korven truly outdid himself with this one. The music kept me on the edge of my seat from the very opening. This is a movie that would’ve still been great with very sparring use of music and artificial sounds but instead it makes great use of Korven’s work. If I had to pick one word to describe the music it would be unrelenting. The longer the movie went on, the more I was impressed by how sound alone could make me feel so uneasy and tense.

I’m trying to think of things I didn’t like about the movie but there really isn’t much. The thing that bothered me most was the dialect that was spoken throughout the movie because it made it difficult to understand what was being said at times. I could make out more than enough to know what was happening but I undoubtedly missed some good stuff. In the end I don’t dislike the decision to use this type of dialect because it made the movie feel more authentic and it just gives me an excuse to watch the movie again with subtitles.

Also worth noting is that this movie reportedly had a tiny budget. I remember hearing that the whole thing was made for about $1 million. That’s a very low budget for what they accomplished! I know that shouldn’t influence my review but the fact that they put out such quality for that budget is very impressive.

After all the great things I had to say about this movie, I cannot say that I would recommend it to everyone. If you’re the type of person who only enjoys jump scares, a fast pace, a deeply explored story, and horror that really gets your heart racing then I really don’t think you’ll enjoy this movie very much. This isn’t to say that liking those kinds of movies is a bad thing. For every Lupe Fiasco or Kendrick Lamar you’re going to have a Chief Keef or 2Chainz and there’s nothing wrong with liking one style over the other or in liking both. Similarly, for every The Witch or It Follows (2014) you’re going to have a Dead Silence (2007) or Annabelle (2014). While I definitely appreciate both styles, I prefer the former category. I don’t know if it’s a trend or if I’m simply choosing different movies to watch but I’ve seen more and more movies move towards tense atmospheres and sounds to provide scares rather than jump scares and gore. Just this past year alone I’ve seen It Follows, The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), and The Witch, all of which fall into this category I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are some of my most recent favorite movies. I’ll gladly watch the new Insidious or Paranormal Activity but it’s refreshing to see alternative styles of horror. Back to my point though, if you thought something like It Follows wasn’t scary enough for you or if you found The Revenant (2015) boring then you should probably skip this one.

To end my review I just wanted to say happy birthday to Liz! We were unable to watch this movie opening weekend but we eagerly watched it the weekend after on her birthday. For some reason we have a habit of watching some pretty twisted stuff on special occasions. It’s not on purpose or anything, it just happens. I still remember one of our first dates was me getting her to watch We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), not exactly a heart warmer. Anyway I’m glad I have a partner who has an open mind about watching crazy stuff like this because otherwise I’d be alone in the theater more often than not.