• Witch, The



    Released by: Lionsgate
    Released on: May 17th, 2016.
    Director: Robert Eggers
    Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger
    Year: 2015
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    The Movie:

    The debut feature of writer/director Robert Eggers, The Witch is set in an unspecified area of New England in 1630. It begins with a scene in which English immigrants William (Ralph Ineson) and his family – wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), elder daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are ordered to leave the town they’ve been living in.

    They setup a farm in a clearing near the woods, but it’s not going well. William is having trouble getting the land to give up much of anything, their harvest is weak and the crops not enough to sustain them through the winter. Things go from bad to worse for the family when Thomasin is entertaining the new addition to the family, a baby boy named Samuel, and in the blink of an eye he suddenly goes missing. William searches for him but it is of no use, he fears the boy has been snatched away by a wolf. Katherine is, quite understandably, devastated and unsure that Thomasin isn’t responsible for this in some way.

    Things get increasingly tense for the family. Mercy and Jonas tease Thomasin to the point where she overreacts and goes along with their accusations – telling them she is a witch and she’ll kill them if they don’t stop it. When she and Caleb head into the woods and she gets kicked off of her horse, he winds up missing, only to return later that night, found naked and very sick out by the stable. While all of this is going on, the twins seem to be more and more obsessed with a goat in the stable that they call Black Phillip and who seems to hold an unusual sway over the children.

    This one is a pretty interesting watch. William is clearly a man of strong faith but his puritanical beliefs, which he has instilled in his family with incredible determination, leans more towards a God of wrath than a God of mercy. He teaches his children to be fearful of the creator that they pray to seemingly constantly, so when misfortune begins to plague them, it’s no wonder that they automatically assume a supernatural reason would be behind it. So grim is their outlook that at one point William tells Caleb, the boy upset about Samuel’s abduction, that because the infant was never baptized he may very well go to Hell. Add to that the fact that, since being ostracized by their congregation, they are literally alone, surround by the thick, dark woods. It’s an eerie setting and as the pending food shortage becomes more real to young and old alike, you completely understand why these people are scared and why they might turn on each other the way they do. At the same time, we’re also convinced that they do love one another. Katherine apologizes to William for becoming a Shrew. Thomasin clearly craves her mother’s love. Caleb looks to his father as a wise man, for guidance and counsel in times of trouble. The family unit is strong among these four, but the twins? They are rambunctious in the way that young children are, though their obsessive adoration of Black Phillip is certainly more than a little unsettling.

    The movie is not heavy on effects but it has a few effectively grisly set pieces that should appease horror fans. More interesting than that, however, is the attention to detail. Shot in a very rural part of Ontario, the woods that surround the small family farm seem to envelop the characters. There are times where it seems that they simply cannot get away from them, even though the woods themselves do not move or change position. The fact that the movie is set in the period that it is set in leaves our characters quite literally in the dark a lot. This adds to the picture’s ability to generate suspense. Few things are more naturally unnerving than travelling through the woods at night with little to no light available. Likewise, the homestead is lit by candle when it is lit at all. The plain clothes, the leftovers from the family’s corn harvest, the piles of chopped wood and the unsettling presence of that goat – this all lends itself to an appropriately unsettling backdrop for both the drama and the horror that will unfold. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography keep things framed with frequently claustrophobic angels while the score from Mark Korven is effective not just in what it evokes from us, but in how minimalist it is. At times you don’t even notice it – but it’s there, clearly, and the fact that it is as subtle as it is allows it to get under your skin.

    For all of this to work as well as it does, the cast need to deliver – and they do. Ralph Ineson’s puritanical patriarch is very well fleshed out. He has the ability to look stern, tough and determined but so too can he look concerned, loving and then, when it all happens so utterly defeated. You feel for the guy. He’s carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders and not doing a particularly good job of it despite some earnest efforts. Ineson makes William feel very human. Kate Dickie as his wife, Katherine, seems perpetually tormented but there are scenes of tenderness and sadness where she emotes with completely convincing theatrics, the kind that feel very dramatic but never out of place. She too has been through a lot and the loss of a child would certainly be enough to break any reasonable human being – and she suffers that in the first five minutes of the film. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are, as the younger twins, irritating. But they’re supposed to be irritating, so it works. Their characters are rowdy but the way that these young actors bring those characters to life is pretty effective. When they sing and dance to celebrate their love for Black Phillip, what are at first the traits of obnoxious, hyper-active children soon become legitimately creepy. Harvey Scrimshaw also does excellent work as the older son. Wrestling with the belief system instilled in him by his father, his character arc is interesting in how it puts him in situations where he has to call all of this into question. Last but not least, Anya Taylor-Joy, whose Thomasin seems in many ways to be the eye of this storm, is excellent. She’s sympathetic to be sure, but so too is she frightening when the story calls for it – the scene in which she confronts Jacob and Mercy previously mentioned being the best example. She does a lot with facial expressions and body language to convey what her character is contending with but also delivers all of her lines with skill.

    Historical accuracy also comes into play here. You never once get the impression that this is all being put on. The homestead set seems very real, as do the clothes and yes, the speech patterns used for every line of dialogue in the film (this will put some viewers off but it was the right move, it adds to the picture’s authenticity). This care and detail on the part of those who worked behind the scenes on the film also extends to the wardrobe and set dressing but just as importantly, to the way that the actual acts of witchcraft occur in the film. Eggers based much of the script on historical documents and folk stories from this era so again, there’s a very clear and determined attempt made on the part of the filmmakers to keep this accurate to the period. A good example of how this is worked into the storyline is a scene in which Katherine and William, she upset about Thomasin’s behavior in recent days, discuss what they should do with her – she’s started her journey into womanhood, we learn, and Katherine would like for her to go and ‘serve’ another family. But has she already, by this point in the film, done just that?

    Is the witch in the movie real? You could make the argument that, yes, there is a horrible woman living in the nearby woods praying on this family or you could make the argument that their dire situation and the increasing paranoia that it’s caused the family is the cause. Without spoiling things, the movie does lean heavier in one direction than the other but ultimately the way things play out here, viewers will probably be best served coming to their own conclusions. This ties into the film’s approach to religion, which is interesting. It never treats lightly the beliefs that these people hold so dear. The issue is treated with a fair bit of respect, there’s often nobility in their attempts to serve God in all that they do, though clearly by modern standards much of this seems over the top (Thomasin’s guilt for playing on a Sunday is a good example). If the supernatural does exist in the world that the film creates, has God abandoned them? William seems to think so at one point, taking all of this upon himself and accepting guilt for the sin of pride. Has their reprobation become the reason that they’re being haunted by a witch? If God has abandoned them, are they not fair game for Satan and his servants? There are a lot of interesting little details in the film, snippets of dialogue, that are worth paying attention to in this regard and his aspect means that The Witch has a stronger lasting impact than most (mainstream) modern horror films. While movies like the Insidious and Paranormal Activity movies are fun to watch at the time, when they’re over, they’re over. Rarely do they stick with you. The Witch will keep you thinking long after the end credits role, not just about what was real and what was imagined or hallucinated but about the importance of faith, the rules of said faith and the consequences of guilt, anger and shame.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Lionsgate presents The Witch on Blu-ray in an excellent AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 1.66.1 widescreen and it looks beautiful. This isn’t a particularly colorful film, the scenes that take place outdoors have a cold, destitute look to them while the interiors are lit by candles in rooms that are sparsely made up and rather barren. But in the context of the story being told, this all works and the transfer brings out as much detail as you’d hope it would, even in the film’s many dark scenes. The image is free of any compression artifacts, edge enhancement or obvious noise reduction and the picture is just as pristine as you’d expect for such a recent effort. Color reproduction brings the film’s heavy earth tones to life perfectly while black levels are rich and deep. Skin tones look lifelike and accurate and there’s lots of depth, texture and detail to the image.

    The only audio option for the feature is a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH and Spanish. The audio presentation is just as strong as the video presentation on this disc. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to understand (so long as the old English speech patterns don’t throw you for a loop) while the sound effects make very good use of the surround channels when the movie calls for it. There’s strong range here, nice clarity and properly balanced levels from start to finish. Hiss and distortion are never an issue while the score has plenty of weight behind it but at the same time never seems to bombastic or overpowering. The more aggressive scenes take advantage of the surround channels in more obvious ways than the quieter moments do but the mix rewards attentive listening, there’s a lot of eerie details you can hear in the backgrounds – the bleating of a goat, the rustle of ‘something’ in the woods, the babbling of the brook. These smaller bits of sound effects and foley work really help to flesh out the movie’s atmosphere in a big way.

    The extras begin with an audio commentary from writer/director Robert Eggers and it’s a pretty interesting listen. He goes into a lot of detail about pretty much every facet of the production as he shares some stories about finding the location he needed in Canada rather than the US to keep costs down. He discusses the research that went into the script, where some of the ideas originated from, casting the film, working with the actors and the animals in the film and a whole lot more. This is detailed, interesting, well-paced and very informative.

    The disc also includes an eight and a half minute featurette that interviews Eggers as well as most the cast members. This is very promotional in nature and not super in-depth but it does allow the cast members to chime in on the film and it also contains some reasonably interesting footage shot on the set of the film during production. Accompanying this is a twenty-nine minute featurette that documents a Q&A session that Eggers did alongside Anya Taylor-Joy and a few of the producers that took place in Salem, MA after a screening of the feature.

    Outside of that we get a still gallery of design work, ten minutes of trailers for the feature menus and chapter selection. A few trailers for other Lionsgate properties play before the main menu screen loads. Inside the Blu-ray case along with the disc is an insert card with a code for a digital HD download of the film. The case in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcover.

    The Final Word:

    The Witch may at times play out more like a historical drama than a traditional horror movie but it does an excellent job of building atmosphere and tension until it all basically explodes in the last twenty minutes or so. The film is an impressive debut. It is stylish, beautifully shot and remarkably well acted – all in all, it’s quite effective and a nice alternative to much of what modern horror films have become. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray debut for the movie looks and sounds excellent and it contains some decent extras as well.
    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!































    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Andrew Monroe's Avatar
      Andrew Monroe -
      Looking forward to watching this again. The scene in the witches lair at the beginning implies some incredibly horrific things being done to the baby. That and the ending are, for different reasons, pretty disturbing scenes. The younger boy and girl made big impressions too.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Really enjoyed this one. Genuinely disturbing throughout.