I enjoyed The Witch immensely, and I hate contrarianism for the sake of being ornery (and I look forward to the next project from Eggers), but given a few months to think about it just as it has arrived in various formats, I feel the film stumbles about here and there. While not a revolutionary addition to horror films, I find it an impressive take on sensuality and the unknown that lurks in sylvan settings. Anya Taylor-Joy is wonderful, but Harvey Scrimshaw steals the film with his earnest and natural performance. The hand sewn costumes and beautifully designed sets are captivating, and the gorgeous cinematography washes the entire experience in a moody, misty drizzle of ominous portents. (having said that I’ll mention the film Winstanely. It conjures up such a meticulously realized 17th century The Witch feels like clumsy cosplay).
But putting my overly critical lenses on, and admitting my taste in ambiguity might make Aickman look ham-fisted, The Witch is far too blunt at times (I’m thinking specifically of the jump scare—yes, there are jump scares—one example being the witch revealing her withered arm when seducing Thomasin). A medium shot of the hemlock trees moving in the wind is far more haunting than some of the garish imagery utilized elsewhere. And while Mark Korven’s score boasts some unsettling choral work, it also feels unjustifiably overwrought in some scenes. But when it works, man does it work.
I appreciate a screenplay that allows ambiguous interpretations, but The Witch’s script seems more perfunctory than elusive and profound. The reveal at the end is unnecessary, bordering on camp (without spoiling the scene, I can imagine allowing the shadows to convey the sense of awe and liberation rather than what the finale delivered). And the irrelevant coda is a poke in the eye to the meticulously concocted atmosphere that preceded it.
My curmudgeonly opinion aside, The Witch is a solid film well worth seeing. I’d say while it isn’t as effective as Sauna, It Follows, or The Shining as examples of how to offer up a profoundly disturbing mood, it does masterfully convey tone, and deserves consideration when looking at examples of how film can convey location effectively. I’m probably being hypercritical, but I can still admire what succeeds in The Witch, while scrutinizing what I felt didn’t work in hopes I can better understand storytelling in all its manifestations.