Thursday, October 06, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #6: THE WITCH (2016)

The Story: A Puritan minister and his family are cast out into the New England wilderness, where they encounter a devilish influence.

Expectations: After its premiere at Sundance, this indie horror film received a fair amount of critical praise and made a lot of money.  It was also the subject of some disagreement over whether or not it was a "real" horror film.   In some circles, it was praised as historical drama; in others, as a religious parable (!).  As a horror fan, what I was hoping for was something akin to hard-hitting British horror films of the late 60s and early 70s like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE WICKER MAN, and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW. 

Reaction: This is a slow-burn horror movie that requires a bit of patience, but ultimately rewards viewers with strong storytelling.   I was surprised that, right off the bat, the filmmaker chooses to show us that the witch is real.  A horror film can gain a lot of mileage out of keeping the audience guessing (think BLAIR WITCH in a period setting), but THE WITCH would not have had the same kind of impact in the end if it had gone that route.  Instead of building around one central mystery or question, the filmmaker puts all his cards on the table and lets a series of complexities unfold.

The film morphs from a supernatural thriller into a tragic family drama, with fearful children turning against their siblings and fearful parents turning against their children.  At one point, I felt like I was watching a colonial version of JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING: nobody knows who they can trust, so everybody becomes a bit of a monster.  This culture of fear is doubly disturbing in a film with hints of religiously justified child abuse.  

It left me thinking about how genuinely disturbed I am by people whose religious beliefs seem immune to emotional attachments, rational arguments, ethical principles, etc.  I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than a parent who becomes convinced that their child is Evil, and must therefore destroy them.  THE WITCH presents Evil as a manifest reality but definitely not the only source of horror.  

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The immediate breakdown of the family, following the onscreen death of a child, was—for me—more frightening than the witch.  (I note that out of the first six films I’ve watched this month, four have revolved around parents coping with the death of a child.  I’m ready to move on from that plot device.)  The sound of the Devil’s whispery voice ran a close second.

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