Two years ago my wife and I, along with her brother and our friend went up to Algonquin Park for a Portaging adventure. It’s what partially inspired the ghost story I just published in my last post (nothing like that actually happened, however the pain the narrator described 100% happened ie. Portaging made me realize how physically weak I am). However while we were up there I thought to myself “wow it’s so completely silent and isolated up here. This would be an amazing setting for a horror story”. And apparently the writers of ‘The Witch’ somehow intercepted this thought and decided to film their horror film in that very park. Heading to the theatre for this film was a rare experience for me as I often just watch my horror films in bed while my wife is asleep. I normally hate seeing these in theatres because they’re often filled with screaming teens who laugh, shout and ruin just about every moment. But this experience was different, there wasn’t a single student in the audience and everyone seemed to be there for the same reason I was. To receive a good scare. I literally hadn’t seen a single trailer, read no synopsis and knew nothing of the film. So you can imagine my surprise when I watched it and realized I was watching one of the most unsettling and scariest movie I’d seen in years. Here’s why:
Now what would a film be without an incredible score. I mentioned this in my review for It Follows, how the music was so powerful and crucial to the story that it itself shaped and developed certain plot points. The Witch was no different and in fact I thought it was even stronger in this regard! If you were to listen to just about every horror film score you’re going to hear 4 minute tracks of ominous sounds followed by 10 seconds of ear piercing violins. What ‘The Witch’ did however was find a way to utilize the strings to shape the emotions of the scene and accentuate the horror. Listen to ‘Hare in the Woods’ a track that is used when the character’s discover a Hare that may or may not be one of the forms of The Witch. The track uses quiet, almost out of tune strings that repeat the same note again and again that gradually makes you feel more and more unsettled. It’s sound creates an unnatural feeling that matches what the characters are feeling as they’re slowly being haunted by this unnatural force. And when the film isn’t using masterful tracks with low long pulls on the strings it uses silence. But it uses silence perfectly, not in the way you’re used to in most horror films. Ie. The character hears a sound, explores it, creeps up to an object (door, cupboard, curtain, etc.) then the right when they reveal what’s behind the object the music screeches at you thus killing the silence. This film didn’t use the traditional cliché of Horror Film silence but rather used it as a technique to further drive the narrative. The scenes with no music and no dialogue were often shot in conjunction with camera angles that were at an odd angle. One scene in particular that I recall was when Thomasin loses her brother in the woods and is knocked unconscious. Upon awakening it’s completely silent and the only angle we see is a a low angle shot looking up at her that doesn’t allow the audience to see what she’s seeing. You feel trapped during this scene and with no musical background you feel even more isolated and scared. The longer it drew out the silence in this scene the more unsettled I felt. This was because, the introduction of music to any scene usually indicates that something’s about to happen, so for this film you waited and waited and waited and it wouldn’t come so the normal amount of anticipation you experience was doubled. You began almost panicking and hoping that some form of sound would be introduced whether it was dialogue or music as it would mean that you would be able to escape this unsettling scene. But rather with the drawn out silence you felt what the character felt, alone, disjointed and unnerved. The director knew how to use sound perfectly and really made this an essential part of the story telling.
The Main Characters
Normally when I review I pick one or two characters to discuss, however in this film there’s essentially only 7 characters, all of whom are a family – granted one of them is a baby so really there’s only 6. Each character was instrumental to the story and none of them were throwaway characters or plot devices which is rare in any horror story. Normally you’d have the main character who had some level of depth and was the main driving force of the plot, along with a few side characters who contributed very little other than being an extra body. But in this film the parents each had substantial depth and you became so invested in each of them personally. Then the children. I could go on and on about them. These were 4 of the most incredibly acting children you’ve seen in a long long time. The oldest daughter, the real main character here, wasn’t your unrealistic overly resourcesful unrealistically tough horror film protagonist. Rather she was exactly what she was, a child who was scared and trying to understand the horror that was happening to her family and their farm. With having her as the main character the audience felt the fear that a child would fear, the helplessness and the frustration. But the characters that deserve the most credit are the 3 youngest children. The brother who experiences a possession deserves an unbelievable amount of praise for his scene where he is battling the possession. It was soooooooooooooooo unsettling and the entire time I was on edge. I was freaking out in the theatre and was legitimately scared as the spirits were speaking through him. He showed me that not all children in horror films are terrible. Now the two little twins who were so young were two of my favourite characters of the entire film. They were bratty, annoying and rude yes but at the same time there was something odd and eerie about them. But that was because they always acted as if they knew more than they let on without actually being the “eery children” archetypes you see in all horror films. Ie. The ones who say cryptic things, or who sing a nursery rhyme in a creepy voice. They were almost always out of the action but they were always lingering, but again not in a cheesy way, but whenever scenes were getting chaotic or stressful they would match this level and often elevate it. When the father is yelling at Thomasin the two of them would begin yelling, and acting out which elevated their argument and elevated your emotions during that scene, almost as if they were trying to do just that. They were contributing to the fear by ways of chaos and noise which was a nice change from other children in other horror films.
I’ve already realized this is a longer than normal review, but I haven’t even touched on the horror yet. This film started off incredibly slow. I remember for the first half hour saying to myself “why is this movie so hyped?” and I was growing a bit restless. Then the slow part was over and it didn’t take me long before I said “oh okay I get it”. Very rarely do I get legitimately scared during films anymore but this one 100% scared me and left me with uneasy feelings afterwards. The scenes themselves that involve ‘The Witch’ were actually incredibly rare, I think there may have been less than 5. In the entire movie the villain appears less than 5 times! But that’s what makes it scary, when you have a monster/villain that appears more than some characters you start to get used to them and they lose their aura. By keeping her appearances limited you almost build her up in her head and start dreading when she’ll appear again. What her scenes provided though were the narrative for the story to continue as the majority of the film focused on the breakdown of the family as a result of these occurrences. The scenes with the family breakdown provided the psychological tension of the film whereas the scenes with The Witch simply provided the horror. Her scenes were brief, to the point and in the end unexplained. That’s not giving away too much because the purpose of the film isn’t to discover why she’s doing what she’s doing or how. Rather it’s about survival, and how this family is going to cope with the hauntings that are centered on their family. The scene that stuck with me though is the final conversation of the film, this leads to the final scene in the woods. I won’t tell you anything other than when this conversation started I was legitimately scared, I wanted to get out of the theatre and I never wanted to think of it again unless I had nightmares. And that was because it was so real and creepy and – as stated earlier – used silence to drive the conversation forward. No music is in the background and no background noise is heard either. Rather the scene focused on the conversation and nothing else and it had me saying “ffuuuuuuuuuuuuuu-“ as I was watching. And of course the real climax of the film, which is the two scenes prior to this one were terrifying. Maybe one of the more scary climax’s I had seen in any horror film. It was chaotic and soooooooo disturbing that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Overall it was one of the scariest films I’d ever seen.
If it seems like I’m gushing over everything about this movie, it’s cause I am. I absolutely loved it and I’d watch it again and again. But one thing that really stuck out for me was the setting. I often find that horror movies don’t necessarily take settings into account which can take away from what would be otherwise amazing films. What ‘The Witch’ did however was it used the setting to tell a part of the story as it needed to focus on the unknown, the isolated and the wildness of the haunting. The villain in this film often relied on the magic of nature itself to haunt the characters. It didn’t use a cell phone to scare them, or a mirror to pop it’s face in but rather it hid in the natural and normal. Almost all of the incidents could be explained by simply looking at the basic principles of nature, an animal attack, getting lost in the woods, crops dying etc. I once heard that the hardest lie to detect was one hidden in truth, and that’s all I could think of here. The small family cottage was surrounded by the forest, and the forest was her domain. You understood why the parents wouldn’t believe the children that something supernatural was happening, and you understood why no one even suspected anything unnatural until close to the end. The witch was haunting them with her environment rather than coming outright and being bold about it. The vastness of Algonquin Park is really captured in this film and made to look beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.
Go see it. If you like horror then you’ll LOVE this. If you don’t like horror, then buy a dream catcher to prevent any nightmares, then go see it. It’s such a beautifully done and wonderful film that it deserves to be watched and admired by all. It was without question one of the scariest and most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen and I know for a fact I’d be equally scared watching it a second time through. Don’t be the only person who hasn’t seen it, go see it now before it leaves theatres!