It’s a bold statement to mark any film out as “the best” in its genre. What makes a film superior to all others? There’s no formula for greatness, no checklist, but perhaps the strength of The Witch lies in the fact that it is anything but formulaic. It’s a horror flick, a coming-of-age story, a historical drama and a tale of man’s fight to overcome nature. Any other film with such a broad spectrum of characteristics might have felt cluttered or confused. But the intent of The Witch was not to be all things to all people, only to be the director’s faithful vision of the paranoia of New England’s early Puritan settlers.
And it is painstakingly faithful, from the clothes to the dialect. Even the buildings and sets were constructed using traditional 17th-century methods, and it was shot utilising only natural daylight and candlelight. Every detail is meticulously designed to immerse the viewer. I remember seeing it last year at the cinema and being thrown for a moment when it ended – it was like we had travelled back in time. After 90 minutes spent with these characters, you understand what it felt like to be adrift in a vast wilderness, at the mercy of forces beyond understanding. In a touching scene, the protagonist Thomasin finds that her brother Caleb can’t remember what it was like to have glass in the windows; you come to understand their homesickness for the shores of England and their dwindling faith in God.
The film culminates with the statement that “This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.”
I think this plays a profound role in the film’s atmosphere. The conversations between the characters feel authentic; the stakes feel appropriately high. The witches of this film are neither charming and inoffensive, nor are they evil in a cartoonish, contrived way. They are viewed through a Christian lens throughout much of the film – they sign the Devil’s book and he becomes their master, they shapeshift into animals and beautiful temptresses. They are exactly as early modern Christians believed them to be. However, there is a parallel drawn between the patriarchal religion of the family, under which Thomasin is silenced and subservient, and the amoral, animalistic freedom of the witches. They represent those things which mankind will never conquer – the natural world and death. If civilisation, law and dogma are coded as masculine in this film, then the feminine is the wilderness which lingers on the periphery.
Everything in this film is supposed to make you feel uneasy by hearkening back to your ancient psyche, to your ancestors. In the final scene, the witches gather at the behest of Black Phillip, a goat who is revealed to be an incarnation of the Devil. The scene bears a striking resemblance to the paintings of Francisco Goya. I’ve included Aquelarre (The Witches’ Sabbath) as a comparison, but you could argue that another of his works El Gran Cabrón (The Great He-Goat) is another possible inspiration.
On the most basic level, it is simply a well-constructed horror film. There are no glaring plot holes, no plotlines are left dangling and it doesn’t rely on cheap jumpscares. I can only think of one instance where a loud noise/impact is used to provide the scare; the rest of the film is devoted to the building of eerie tension. With a soundtrack of dissonant scraping string instruments and intermittent creaks and rattles, it’s the kind of film that will have you looking over your shoulder as you watch – just in case.
I’ll argue fiercely with anyone who calls this film “boring”. I think it was brave of the cast and crew to make it, because it is so distinct from the mainstream horror genre.
That’s why, so far, it’s the best horror film of the 21st century to grace the screen.