The Witch (2015)
Studio: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release date: April 23rd 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
With 2019 marking the end of the decade, it’s inevitably inspired chatter about the best horror films from the past ten years. I’ve found myself nodding along in agreement with the usual suspects as they’ve appeared: Cabin in the Woods, Get Out, The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, etc. However, there’s one title that’s inspired some especially vigorous nodding: The Witch, Robert Eggers’s entrancing New England folktale. I was immediately taken with it upon release a few years ago, and it’s lingered in my mind ever since as one of the genre’s most indelible experiences.
Between its restrained direction, keen attention to lived-in detail, and sharp exploitation of Puritan satanic panic, The Witch felt more like a transcendent experience, one that transported the audience to an otherworldly plane nestled somewhere very south of heaven but just slightly north of hell. Suffice it to say, I didn’t need much prodding to revisit it when it recently debuted on 4K UHD.
Doing so only confirmed my immediate reaction: The Witch feels like an evocative conjuring, almost as if Eggers summoned it from the collective, foggy unconscious of history, memory, and folklore. Much has rightly been made about how the film’s impeccably crafted production design authentically captures this excommunicated Puritan family’s hellish ordeal in the wilds of New England; however, more than that, The Witch captures the sinister, evangelical nature of Puritan life. Damnation hangs thick on every frame of the film: in the shadows of the desolate, foreboding woods; in the weary, cragged face of patriarch William (Ralph Ineson); in the mounting desperation of a harsh winter that’s left ruined crops in its wake; in the family’s cruel treatment of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who may need to be sold off to another family to compensate.
Most notably, however, damnation lurks in the form of the actual witch haunting those nearby woods. While The Witch bears the hallmarks of “slow burn” horror (so much so that some people weirdly debated if it even was a horror movie at all), it’s not exactly coy about its title character. Within the first few scenes, The Witch of the woods abducts the family’s baby before grinding it into gruel, leaving no doubt about its existence. Just as the Puritans so zealously believed, evil is real and inevitable, and Eggers bakes that overwhelming dread into every frame of The Witch. Despite this visceral inciting incident and the violent flourishes scattered throughout, this is a truly existential horror film, one that captures a family of true believers at a moment of spiritual confrontation. They see their entire world upended, first by their community, and then by their God, who has seemingly forsaken them in this purgatorial wilderness.
In many ways, The Witch is the spiritual successor to The Exorcist in this regard. Like that film, it boasts its fair share of memorable schlock, including a tense, show-stopping exorcism. But as it was with Friedkin’s film, this is not what necessarily endures or lingers in the wake of The Witch; rather, it’s that suffocating insistence on doom. Your institutions will fail you. Your faith will fail you. Your own family will fail you. Notably, these horrors are specifically visited upon a young woman, much like they were in The Exorcist, only, where Regan McNeil represented corrupted innocence, Thomasin’s ordeal reflects the specifically feminine horror of being repressed, exploited, and scapegoated. Given how much we’ve managed to regress as a culture on this topic just a few years later, it goes without saying that The Witch feels even more potent and crucial now.
Eggers charts a strange, unexpected path for Thomasin through these horrors. It’s not exactly the dogged, weirdly optimistic sense of hope that seeps in at the end of The Exorcist, a film that ultimately seems to insist that good can triumph, albeit at a great cost. The Witch, on the other hand, holds a much more amoral—if not anarchic—worldview that finds salvation in damnation. For Thomasin, the only way out is through her family—quite literally (and viscerally), at least when it comes to her parents. A positively Satanic finale finds this young woman embracing everything her faith has demonized for her entire life—and it’s absolutely staged as a moment of euphoric triumph, as Thomasin willingly chooses to “live deliciously” with coven of witches.
The film’s final shot has her floating in ecstasy, finally free of both her family and any earthen bonds. Bold, blasphemous, and altogether exhilarating, the finale ultimately invites the audience to also thrill at the horrors on display. What began as a disturbing, oppressively suffocating film about an inevitable evil haunting a hapless family ends with a weirdly exciting moment of triumph. It’s almost as if The Witch has been whispering seductively into our ear the entire time, slyly asking us to delight in the exploits of Black Phillip and Thomasin’s devilish siblings. By the end, there’s no doubt: The Witch is an enthralling forbidden fruit, an incantation of irresistible black magic that leaves the audience entranced and horrified in equal measure.
The Witch might not seem like the most obvious choice to make the leap to 4K: its photography is generally muted and bathed in natural lighting, resulting in an appropriately sullen palette. However, this is exactly why it’s a perfect candidate to show off the subtle improvements of the new format. When describing the best UHD discs I’ve seen so far, the word “natural” comes to mind: it might not offer the most obvious, stunning leaps like previous formats, but this is the easily the most filmic home video experience, and The Witch continues Lionsgate’s impressive run of releases.
Look no further than the film’s darker scenes for proof: where previous formats have struggled to retain detail amidst crushed black levels, The Witch thrives with a naturally shadowy picture. Scenes set by firelight are especially breathtaking, which admittedly sounds like an odd selling point, but that’s kind of where we are with this latest home video format: almost infinitesimal upticks in quality that are at least perceptible enough to warrant an upgrade in most cases. Regardless, if you’re 4K-equipped, this is certainly the way to go with The Witch, especially since the previous Blu-ray and its special features are also included in the package. And make no mistake: your collection absolutely should include The Witch, which is well on its way to entering the pantheon of great horror films—from this or any other decade as far as I’m concerned. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: