There’s been a disturbing trend in the horror genre lately in which there hasn’t been a film that could truly be classified as “great,” and what’s perhaps more disturbing is that there have been some recently that have received glowing acclaim, but in reality have turned out to be nothing like what’s been said about them. Recent examples include films like “The Conjuring,” which was nothing more than a lazily-written, drudging bore, “The Babadook,” which could officially be labeled as the cure for insomnia, and “It Follows,” a film with an interesting idea, but one that ended up being sloppily-executed and extremely repetitive. Now we have Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” which premiered at Sundance to some rave reviews, and even took home the award for Best Director. With so much disappointment in the past, I try not to get my hopes up, but like many fans of the genre, I’m always on the lookout for the next great horror film, and so I proceeded with caution into Eggers’ film, with a small glimmer of hope in the back of my mind that this just might finally be the one.
The film takes place in 1630s New England, where we find a family being banished from their colony due to differences in religious beliefs. The family, consisting of the father, William (Ralph Ineson), mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children, move to the edge of a forest where they try to make a new life for themselves. However, very soon after they set up their new home, their baby vanishes without a trace, causing the family much grief. They do their best to move on, but their new life is quite difficult. Their crops are bad, William isn’t exactly great at hunting, and already there appears to be tensions between them. Sadly, things only go from bad to worse when another one of the children disappears, sparking a series of supernatural events.
“The Witch” is the kind of film that starts to pull you in almost immediately simply through its vivid look, a production design that faithfully captures the sights and feel of a 17th century American colony and the eventual wilderness that our family comes to live in. Right along with it comes a strong sense of mood and atmosphere that sets the tone for the kind of story that Eggers is going to delve into when his tale takes off, incorporating an impending sense of heavy dread and the tangible sorrow that appears to be hanging over this family after their banishment, and even more so after their youngest disappears. It sets the stage for what one expects to be a twisted, macabre, and potentially frightening tale of not only subsistence in the wilderness, but also survival against an unknown evil.
Or rather we should say that this was Eggers’ intention, for while he does a great job of establishing the time and the place, the storytelling here presents a major problem that the film is never quite able to overcome. For starters, the actual story doesn’t even truly begin until about halfway through the film’s brief 90-minute runtime, filling up the first half instead by quickly getting our characters situated and then having them kill time until other events begin to unfold that ultimately drive the rest of the tale. Because of this, the pacing of the picture is at a crawl from almost the very start, and doesn’t even begin to recover until sometime in the film’s second half.
This is where Eggers’ film does begin to pick up a bit, and yet it’s still unable to get up to the level of disturbing that it wants to be, even as it begins to have paranoiac echoes of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece “The Crucible” thrown in. Credit must be given where it’s due though, as young Harvey Scrimshaw (as the family’s only son) does a great job when it comes to the trials and tribulations that his character goes through in the film’s more intense scenes. In fact, aside from the intriguing finger-pointing among the family members, he puts on what is perhaps the most interesting display that the film has to offer, as we, like the family, try to figure out what exactly is going on.
While there are indeed some merits to the more involved latter half, the tone begins to present another problem, for much of it is so over-the-top that you can’t help but let out a little chuckle ever now and again. I won’t go into specifics, for it’s best to experience it without prior knowledge, but I think it’s safe to assume that Eggers didn’t intend for certain parts to be, for lack of a better word, amusing. The ending in particular mostly leaves you simply shaking your head at the levels of silliness achieved as it attempts to hold on to the dour mood the film has tried to maintain throughout.
So what we get with Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is another one of those films that doesn’t quite live up to the reputation that preceded it. It may have received some glowing praise, but why it is exactly that it was earning that level of praise remains a bit of a mystery, similar to the other films mentioned previously. It does have some top-notch production design and costumes, and it incorporates a fine use of mood and atmosphere, but as far as Eggers’ narrative ambitions go, it leaves a lot to be desired, leaving us to continue the seemingly never-ending search for the next great horror film.
“The Witch” comes to Blu-ray in a somewhat questionable 1.66:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that is a little hard to see in certain spots. This could simply be because of poor lighting, which is a rather nagging problem in several scenes throughout the film, but for the most part, scenes are lit well enough in which we can see the decent quality of the transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is one of the softest tracks I’ve ever heard. In this instance, I had to turn my TV nearly to the max just to make out what the characters were saying, and even then it was still a tad difficult to tell sometimes. However, what’s more annoying is that the music is louder than the dialogue, so you end up with the score blasting, while just barely being able to hear the dialogue. Overall, a little more work needed to be done on this release. It’s unclear if anything could have been done to improve the video, but the audio certainly could have been mixed better.
Audio Commentary with Robert Eggers: A track that has the writer/director offering up some interesting tidbits about the film.
The Witch: A Primal Folklore (8 Minutes): An intriguing featurette that delves into the making of the film through behind the scenes footage and interviews with Eggers and the cast.
Salem Panel Q&A (28 Minutes): An informative panel featuring Eggers, actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and authors who have written about the Salem Witch Trials.
“The Witch” does an excellent job in establishing its 1630s New England setting through vivid production design and an unsettling, ominous atmosphere, but when it comes to the film’s storyline, it’s never quite able to reach the compelling and disturbing heights that writer/director Robert Eggers strives for. For all of its dread-dripping setup and expertly-prepared visuals, it simply doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to what’s most important.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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