You’ve probably heard by now that The Witch: A New England Folktale is one of the most frightening horror movies out there, and that’s partly true. It is terrifying, but it’s not strictly a horror movie.
That seems like arguing over semantics, but the gist of it is this: if you go into this film expecting jump scares and gore at every turn, you’re not going to have a great time. The Witch is less about horror and more about storytelling – hence the addition of A New England Folktale to its title.
Really, the less you know about The Witch the better, save that it’s set in inhospitable, Puritan-era New England. A deeply religious family made up of patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are exiled from their town for “prideful conceit”. Fast forward a few months later and there’s an addition to their family, baby Samuel. They have a couple of goats, they’re trying to farm corn, and life isn’t easy.
The entire film is deeply unnerving, despite all the definitive horror happening in the space of a few scenes. Reminiscent of The Shining in that slow, unsettling build-up, The Witch is a masterclass of uncertainty and fear, a reflection of the struggles of English peasants who left Europe for more opportunity, but who simply found more difficulties. It’s also about religion, of course: William’s “prideful conceit” is why they are exiled in the beginning, and their harsh, rigid interpretations of their Christianity is what ultimately causes their downfall. Too fearful of God, but also of what lies beyond in the wilderness, their fear is how the devil enters.
What’s almost more captivating than The Witch‘s delving into devotion is the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. She is pitch perfect as a young woman who has no peers, who is coming of age, and wants more than life on a farm with her family, but who also wants to be safe. Her character is the most intriguing, with a great pay-off at the end.
I’ve talked a lot about how The Witch isn’t a horror movie, because I know people are going into it expecting a certain thing, and then feeling let down. Instead, look at the film as a story about a family, isolated in the American wilderness. It’ll be much more enjoyable.