New England, 1630: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with their five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another. The Witch is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own fears and anxieties, leaving them prey to an inescapable evil.
Robert Eggers' 'The Witch' is a deeply unsettling tale of a fanatically religious family living in the 17th Century pre-colonial wilderness. It's a horror film without conventional scares. It's a brooding, seething dive into fanaticism, unhealthy religious fervor, and magical worldviews.
Eggers is aware that his movie, which is billed as a horror movie, doesn't actually meet many of the genre's requirements. At least not the jump-scare standards we've come to expect from the 'Paranormal Activity's of the world. Instead Eggers builds an unrelenting tension as we're forced to come to grips with familial madness and incestuous yearnings.
The family's patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), is banished from the local Puritan town for being too radical. We never really understand exactly what he did wrong, but it's easy to see that William is a man completely lost within his religion. His unchecked puritanical zeal scares even the staunchest Puritans. That's telling.
Banished from the town, William and his family set off into the wilderness to set up their own refuge. A place where William's religious excitement can flourish without being tied down to a town council's whims.
It's a difficult life. The children are put to work straightaway. Beyond the makeshift farm is a foreboding wood. The forest is imbued with horror and dread simply because William suggests it is. His oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), bears much of the burden for raising her siblings. Her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fighting feelings of sexual attraction for his sister, is headstrong and determined to help his father conquer this unforgiving wilderness.
One day Thomasin is playing with the family's youngest, when he inexplicably vanishes as quick as a blink. It's the inciting event that drives the rest of the movie's ever-increasing sense of dread and fear of the unknown. The family blames a wolf for the disappearance of the baby, though something more nefarious is at work.
Working in ambiguity for much of the movie, Eggers draws from historical fairytales to craft a relentlessly scary screenplay. It's a different type of scary though. It's a cautionary tale of how fanatical thinking can completely occupy a person's thoughts, leading to unspeakable deeds. It's a journey into strictly patriarchal cultures ruled by rigged pharisaical tyrants. Not that William is an awful person. He's surprisingly forthcoming and loving with his children. However, his views have so permeated the minds of his children that they have nowhere to turn to fact check his ramblings.
The question as the movie creepily continues is whether William, Thomasin, Caleb, and the rest are living in a world where devils and witches exist, or are they simply figments of imagined dangers. I recently reviewed Alejandro Amenábar's 'Regression' which ultimately concluded with an explanation of mass hysteria. The town, and even its skeptical detective, were convinced that there were devil worshippers walking among them committing horrifying acts of violence in the name of the Dark One. The hysteria spread like a noxious weed, without proof or peer-reviewed research. If it bleeds it leads even if the blood is completely imaginary.
In 'The Witch' was have Eggers riding this current of quiet horror, all the while teasing us with whether witches actually exist. It's a fascinating and frightening film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a single-disc release. The 50GB Blu-ray comes packaged in a standard keepcase that is sheathed in a cardboard slipcover. It also comes with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
The 1080p transfer accompanying 'The Witch' is impressive in its detail and depth. Even its unfamiliar 1.66:1 aspect ration lends itself to a unique feel. Most of the movie is bathed in moonlight scenes that offer little in the way of sunlight. Darkness reigns in this film's color palette and the way it handles that aspect is wonderful.
The first thing one might notice is that shadows are full and dark, but they never betray the film's detail or visual integrity. Far too often low-budget festival films that make it to Blu-ray feature flat black areas leading to constant crushing and lost detail. Here shadows accentuate edges, and bring depth and dimension to the picture. Fine detail is full and defined. Even in darkness close-ups feature intricate details like individual hair strands, pores, and all the rest. Simultaneously, black areas are constantly inky, never giving over to flatness or unintentional graying.
When the sun is out detail is even more vibrant. So are the colors. The deep greens of the verdant forest are expertly rendered. I didn't notice any banding. I watched closely during many of the film's slow fade outs and didn't notice any instances of visible banding that would distract the viewer. All in all, 'The Witch' offers one of the best looking Blu-ray transfers I've seen for a lower-budget movie featuring this much visual darkness.
'The Witch' offers up a subdued DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. This doesn't mean that there's something wrong with it. Rather, it's simply how the sound design works here. For example, if your sub-woofer automatically goes into power-saving mode when it's not being used, it'll do that a lot in this movie.
Much of the film's sound content is centered up front. Voices are clear and they need to be since the characters in 'The Witch' are speaking Old English. Lots of thees, thous, and thys. It's great that dialogue is clear or it'd be impossible to tell the difference between them.
The music is encompassing and is piped into every channel. Surrounds are home to full-bodied ambient sound like birds chirping in the forest, branches breaking under the foot of unseen animals, and wind gusting through forest leaves. Moments of low-end sonics are few and far between. I actually was anticipating a lot of bass in this movie, but that's one more way that this movie is an unconventional horror film. When the sub-woofer is called upon it performs admirably with some deep rumbles. Yet, those episodes are extremely spaced out. Enough so for subs to power themselves down to save energy.
This is a solid mix, however. It plays to the movie's strengths and offers up a clean and clear audioscape for our listening pleasure. It may not feature a lot of audio pyrotechnics that much is true. Still, it creates a creepy atmosphere that is a must for this film.
Audio Commentary – Director Robert Eggers provides the audio commentary here.
'The Witch': A Primal Folktale (HD, 8 min.) – A somewhat engaging promotional piece about the film with interviews from cast and crew.
Salem Panel Q&A (HD, 28 min.) – Eggers and Taylor-Joy are joined by leading Salem witch-hunt historian Richard Trask and author Brunonia Barry to discuss the Salem Witch Trials and their impact on American history.
Eggers offers up an unnerving look at consuming religious excitement, group madness, and seclusion. His ability to craft scary scenes that are simultaneously thoughtful and full of extraneous meaning is this film's crowning achievement. With a strong video presentation and atmospheric audio this release comes recommended.