Why “The Witch” is the best horror film of this century

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.

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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.”

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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.

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You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.