I have a particular fetish for surreal or supernatural horror in a historical setting. Think about it. We, in the modern age, have barely attained a grasp of how the universe works and we still have a long way to go. But what about 200 years ago? Or 400? How in God’s name (sometimes literally) do people who lack modern science and medicine react to a zombie invasion? Aliens? A gateway to another dimension? Or worse – a supernatural threat that forces these doomed historical characters to face their own inhumanity and realize they are wanting. Look no further than The Witch, an existential drama with elements of horror set in seventeenth century New England, probably in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It centers on an English family, whose father and patriarch has been exiled from orthodox Puritan society over a disagreement in religious doctrine. (Ironic if you think about it.) They travel to the edge of the frontier and attempt to build a small farm in full view of a vast and impenetrable forest. Their efforts are met with misfortune and hardship. Then…things…start to get really fucking weird.
What makes The Witch stand out is that it is not a conventional horror film. In fact, it is more of a historical drama with surreal horror elements. Many scenes are a serious and somber reflection on Puritanical thought and religious philosophy. Even the threat posed by the “witch” can be interpreted as a metaphor for the vast, dangerous, and unknown wilderness surrounding the tiny and fledgling colonies that dotted North America at the time. The father, while sympathetic and played with authentic precision by Ralph Ineson, displays the Greek tragic flaw of pride in both theological matters and overall worldview. He tells his inquisitive son with typical European arrogance that the wilderness is something to be conquered and Christianized, not understood or tolerated. After all, in the Puritanical mindset, the forest is Satan’s realm – sanctuary to godless savages, outcasts from civilization, and of course WITCHES.
When The Witch does turn toward horror, it does so in surprisingly disturbing ways. The camerawork knows when to linger on an unsettling image and allow things to develop while the ambient and moody score locks us in a dark place. The micro-focus and isolation of the action leads to a claustrophobic feeling that one cannot escape. And the strange but unambiguous ending successfully pulls the trigger and goes all the way with its premise. The cast playing the doomed family are all superb, but the true protagonist is the eldest daughter (Anna-Taylor Joy) who represents restrictive Puritanical views on female sexuality and its power. In terms of reception, The Witch may have a similar fate to It Follows, in that it was praised by critics and the horror community but reviled by general audiences. But thematically it bears more in common with A Field in England, another surrealist historical horror film set in the seventeenth century. It is a film that I would recommend to serious and discerning cinemaphiles and not the average moviegoer. I would recommend that one watch The Witch on DVD with subtitles, as the seventeenth century English may be imperceptible for some. Burn the witch.