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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Witch

May 16th, 2016

The Witch - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
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The Witch

The Witch only cost $3.5 million to make and barely opened in more than 2,000 theaters during its opening weekend. It was never going to be a monster hit. Even becoming a midlevel hit was likely out of the question. It did, on the other hand, earn more than $25 million, which is enough to make the studio happy, but likely not enough to break even just yet. In order to become a financial success, it will need to do as well on the home market. On the positive side, the reviews were 90% positive. On the negative side, the audience reaction on Rotten Tomatoes was a lot lower at 55% positive. Is this a horror film that will only please critics and leave the average moviegoer wanting more?

The Movie

The Witch is set in colonial New England and it begins in court. The town judges are accusing a man, William, of prideful conceit... I don't know what that is either, besides being redundant. From the context of the arguments, he's teaching the gospel in a way that isn't approved by the church. As a result, he and his family are banished from the town and are forced to go into the forest to start a new life. His family includes his pregnant wife, Katherine; his eldest daughter, Thomasin; eldest son, Caleb; and his fraternal twins, Mercy and Jonas.

At first, their new life seems like it will be better than their old life. They find a perfect spot for a new farm, right by the woods, and they make a new life for themselves and their new baby, Samuel. One day, Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with Samuel when the infant disappears. She wasn't playing hide-and-go-seek with the infant. She literally just covered her eyes for a couple of seconds and the child was gone. She panics and goes looking for the child, but we see what happens to Samuel and know her search will be futile. ... I think this was a mistake as far the storytelling is concerned. We are less than 10 minutes into the movie and we've barely heard three lines of dialogue, but we already have certain proof that something supernatural is happening. I think it would have been more engaging is there were more ambiguity in the movie for longer. It would help set the tone better.

A few days later, William takes his son Caleb hunting in the woods. The crops haven't come in well, so they need to hunt to have enough food to last the winter. Caleb is apprehensive, as his parents have previously told him to not go into the forest. Caleb is also concerned about Samuel and whether or not he's going to heaven. William has taught him that everyone is born in sin and Samuel wasn't baptized, so that means he died in sin. William admits he doesn't know where Samuel's soul will go, but says not to talk about the child anymore. Caleb is also worried that he will go to hell, because sin is in him. (We previously saw him starring at his sleeping sister's breasts. Caleb asks where he got the traps and William admits to trading Katherine's silver cup for the hunting gear, but he also tells Caleb not to mention that as well, not until her mourning has passed.

When they get home, the twins, Mercy and Jonas, are taunting their goat, Black Phillip. William tries to makes sure Black Phillip doesn't attack his kids, but gets knocked over in the process causing the twins to laugh at him and that causes a bigger fight in the family. Shortly after that, while Thomasin and Caleb are by the stream doing chores, Mercy comes by and taunts them saying she's the Witch in the Woods, the witch that stole Samuel. When Thomasin tells her she's not supposed to be there, Mercy says Black Phillip said she could do what she wants. Thomasin returns the taunting, claiming she's the Witch in the Woods. She may have been joking, but during dinner, her mother accuses her of being responsible for Samuel's disappearance. And later that night while they think the kids are in bed, she says to her husband that Thomasin needs to leave to work for another family or they won't have enough to eat during the winter. Clearly the stress is taking its toll on the family.

Thomasin and Caleb decide the only way to save the family is to make sure they have enough food, so they sneak out of the house and go hunting in the woods. What happens next is in spoiler territory.

I can see both sides of the argument when it comes to the divide between critics and the average moviegoer. While it is rare for a horror film to be a monster hit, there are still a lot of them that come out each year, so in order to appeal to the average critic, a horror film has to do something different. The Witch is different thanks to its setting. You don't get many horror movies set in Colonial America. However, I can also see why this would annoy the average moviegoer. They speak in a time-appropriate fashion; much of the dialogue was taken from writings from the time, which is impressive. On the other hand, one could argue that the thee's and thou's were accuracy at the expense of accessibility for some. You are going to want to watch the movie with subtitles.

Another thing that pleases critics when it comes to horror movies is when the scares come from atmosphere and tension rather than gore or sadistic killers. Unfortunately, this only partially works in The Witch. There are many scenes that have great atmosphere and the film does generate some tension in these scenes. However, the pacing is simply too slow for the tension to rise enough to be effective. Additionally, since we knew from the start that there were actual witches, there was no sense of mystery in the movie either. I think the tension would have been stronger if the audience didn't know for a while if what was happening to the family was bad luck, or if someone was tormenting them. Also, the film should have been more ambiguous about the nature of the tormentor for much longer. Maybe the Witch of the Woods only thought they had magic powers, because she was high as a kite on magic mushrooms.

That's too bad, because there's a lot to like about The Witch, especially the acting. Both Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw are excellent this movie and I look forward to what they do next.

Overall, the positives and the negatives balance out. The Witch isn't as good as its Tomatometer Score, but it isn't as bad as its audience reaction either. If you are a fan of more atmospheric horror, then it is worth checking out.

The Extras

The extras are what you would expect for a release like this. It was only a middling hit, so the DVD and Blu-ray are not loaded, but there's more than enough to not feel bare either. The first extra is an audio commentary track with the writer / director, Robert Eggers. There is also a 9-minute making of featurette and a 28-minute Q&A session at the Salem Film Festival. Finally, there is a design gallery.

The Verdict

The Witch is a good movie, but not as good as its Tomatometer Score would indicate. The extras on the DVD or Blu-ray are good enough to be worth picking up for fans of this type of horror movie, but it isn't Pick of the Week material.

Filed under: Video Review, The Witch, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Robert Eggers, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson