The Witch (otherwise known as The VVitch) doesn't rely on premeditated jump scares or grotesque imagery to strike fear into its audience. It doesn't ask people to suspend their disbelief for an hour-and-a-half in order to properly enjoy the movie. Instead, it asks people to try and understand what life would have been like for a family of devout Christians living in solitude, terrified of what may happen if they go against the word of God. One of the reasons The Witch works as well as it does is because, despite its name, the movie isn't a horrific folktale about a paranormal being, but rather a look into the depravity of what humanity can become.
The scariest aspect of the film, however, is the level of depravity the family sinks to when the cataclysmic series of unfortunate events begin to occur. The mother and father, played brilliantly by Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dicki, once so protective of their children, cast them aside when they are lead to believe the devil rages inside of them. It's bone chilling to watch the sanity slowly start to fade and blind belief overtake every decision.
The Witch is a perfect example of how terrifying a movie can be even when not much happens in it.
In many ways, that's where the slow pacing of the film works best. It wouldn't have been nearly as traumatizing if these parents had decided their children were evil and just went about exercising them with a snap of their fingers. Instead, director Robert Eggers moves through the painful confusion and flinching denial that they experience as they watch their family deteriorate before their very eyes.
It's important to note, because it plays into the authenticity of the film, that the movie never feels disrespectful to the group of people it's portraying. They're never painted as simpletons or religious fanatics, but instead as common folk of the movie's time period. It only makes the film seem even scarier, too.
Although the paranormal aspects of the film are fictional, the response to what was happening around them are more than plausible. The hysteria, paranoia, fear and distrust that come with isolation and activity that can't be explained presides over the film, and, in many ways, calls back to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. It's the descent into madness that plays out from beginning to end that drives the eeriness of the film. The witch itself is just a byproduct.
The Witch is a part of a new wave of horror that has cast aside the idea of going for direct shock value and instead uses the concept of horror to broach an entirely different topic. It feels like this is the direction that horror wants to head in, after years of overly grotesque, "torture porn"-themed movies from the early oughts until now. While the formula is still being worked out, directors are still figuring out just how to scare audiences while removing most of what makes horror movies work. The new direction is exciting, and The Witch is a perfect example of how terrifying a movie can be even when not much happens in it.
That's not to say there aren't some issues with the film. As previously mentioned, while the slow pacing works for some scenes, there are more than a few moments when the movie feels dull and lifeless. It's hard not to get distracted when these scenes play out and focus on something else entirely. It's not just the pacing, however, that's a bit of a problem. In order to stay as authentic as possible, Eggers made the decision not only to use the vocabulary of an archaic style English that modern audiences aren't accustomed to — he decided to immerse them in it. Paired with strong British accents, it's difficult at times to understand what's being said — literally — and that distracts from the movie at points. While it's great to see a director dedicate that much effort to being as realistic as possible, it doesn't always pay off for the film.
Despite these few flaws, The Witch is one of the best horror movies in years. It's unique and nostalgic all at the same time, with one foot in the world of modern film and one foot firmly planted in the era of '60s and '70s cult horror. The Witch doesn't ask its audience to examine the possibility of the paranormal in our own backyard and question whether that's real. Instead, The Witch demands that we take a look at how easy it can be to break down the sanity that makes us human — the depravity that can befall us at any moment given the right circumstances.
The Witch is a movie about the human condition and the effects of isolation on our psyche. It's a thorough examination that, without a doubt, is absolutely petrifying.