Monday, 14 March 2016



It's always interesting to see a movie which makes absolutely no concessions to the multiplex audience somehow getting a release beyond the arthouse circuits. Will it find favour out of its natural habitat? Will the Friday night date-and-a-pizza crowd give it a go or stick to the big studio crowdpleasers? And if they do make that leap into the unknown, will they like it and maybe make genuinely weird movies a viable concern? Or will they find it so strange and different that they'll scurry quickly back to the safety of Marvel and Michael Bay? Because pretty much everything about The Witch seems to have been designed specifically to annoy and alienate that popcorn demographic, from the dialogue to the score and even the aspect ratio. Which is no bad thing, frankly.

Subtitled A New England Folktale, The Witch (technically it's The VVitch but that just looks weird) tells of an immigrant English family in 1630's America, freshly thrown out of a Puritan community for being too puritanical. Trouble strikes early when the youngest of the children disappears without trace: was it witchcraft that spirited the baby away for an occult ritual? Is there something genuinely evil lurking in the woods? Or does it lurk within the family themselves - as a result of their unreasoning obsession with original sin and eternal damnation, or a need to escape that suffocating religious fervour?

It aims for an atmosphere of quiet dread rather than big shocks (though it did make me jump at one point): it has no gore or black humour, its bogeyman figure is kept to the shadows at all times and may not even be there. Instead it works its power through terrific acting (especially from the children) and its unbroken mood of darkness that may or may not contain some malevolent physical entity, all helped by keeping the dialogue in ancient English throughout: lots of "thee" and "thou" which is startling at first but you soon get used to it. It's shot in a cropped 5:3 ratio (emphasising the height of the woods rather than width) with a sombre, colourless palette, and overlaid with Mark Korven's non-traditional soundtrack of dissonant, partly improvised choir wailings (think Ligeti's choral pieces as heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and instruments such as a hurdy-gurdy and something called a nyckelharpa, to create an unsettling aura of menace and unease: there might be an evil out there, or it might already be here with you.

If the film does have a manifestation of occult Evil, it's the family's pet goat, Black Phillip, sinister star of the UK poster artwork who might as easily be the Satanic embodiment as just a regular goat. Whichever, he already has his own (supposedly comedic) Twitter account and will almost certainly turn up in lame spoofs of the Scary Movie variety. Certainly The Witch qualifies as a horror film, though it's a radically different beast from any horror movie that's played the circuits in recent years. It's a horror movie in the way Under The Skin was a science-fiction movie: that's technically what it is but it's quite unlike any other films of that category. But is The Witch actually scary? Not by traditional horror movie standards, perhaps: the archaic dialogue (which is apparently verbatim from records of the time) and period setting tend to distance it from the real world of 2016, and its refusal to commit to an actual or a psychological explanation for its horrors means we're not sure what to be scared of, but the film has definitely conjured something. It didn't completely wow me when I saw it, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.


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