The new crop of psychological horror movies that have become popular in the past couple of years (think The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, It Follows) seem to be revitalizing a genre that most thought was dead after the Japanese-horror-remake craze of the early ‘00s, and since horror has been relegated to schlocky slasher, grotesque exorcism, and haunted whatever films ever since. The problem with this is that the definition of what a horror film is (or should be) has drastically changed in the meantime too. Where natural horror stemming from human circumstance, like the quiet, upset normalcy of The Exorcist, used to be what horrified audiences. Now jump scares seem to be the new de-facto scare for modern audiences, and the more grotesque the jump scare, the better. This leads to a detraction from cinematic themes for this new breed of psychological horror for audiences, as mood and atmosphere are not as important as the instant gratification and predictable tropes that come along with the familiar scare's that you can bank on seeing on a Friday night.
This is all to say that it is sad to see the public turn against as good of a film as The VVitch for reasons of “nothing happened,” or “it wasn’t scary,” or “that’s it?” I only bring this up since it does feel like the new interest in these psych-horror films we were seeing is quickly going to dwindle with audiences rebelling against The VVitch, the first to get one of the widest releases enjoyed by these films (maybe also It Follows? I am horrible at fact checking). But with that out of the way, I’d love to just talk about this film.
The VVitch is the story of a puritanical family in some sort of New England setting (the specifics aren’t there, and don’t matter much), who we see at the beginning excising themselves from their settlement to better follow God. They build a small homestead in the woods and then bad things begin to happen. In fact we don’t really get to see much good happening for the family, as the first interaction we have with them is when the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy), is playing with their infant child and in between a game of “peek-a-boo” the infant is gone and nowhere to be seen. We then see a witch running through the woods with the child, and see her perform a ritual with the baby’s corpse (so that there’s no confusion that witch’s exist in this world). The film then proceeds to follow the fallout from this, as the mother goes insane with grief, the father slowly begins to doubt himself as the crops are also failing, and the children exist around this strange dynamic, including the now youngest twins who have taken to singing songs based around the black furred male goat, Black Phillip.
The main gist of The VVitch is the effect of claustrophobia, isolation, and an unwavering superstitious/religious view of the world on the lives of this family being tormented by a true evil incarnate. This is a small setup for a small film but the techniques used to keep the film compelling are impressive, especially considering the relative inexperience of the director, Robert Eggers (this is his first feature aside from something called "Untitled Nosferatu Remake" which doesn't seem to even actually exist). Eggers main experience in films is from Production Design and it shows in The VVitch, as the small colonial farmstead contains only a couple of sets, but they are so immersive in the atmosphere of the time that the movie becomes engrossing on a simply visual basic. The production design mixed with the dialogue, which was written based on (or completely taken from) testimonials and other writings from the era, this gives the film an otherworldly feel, as the words are recognizable but hard to process in the same way as hearing Shakespeare performed live. These touches and the contemplative nature of the movie make it ride a fine line between becoming incomprehensible, or worse boring, but everything melds together into a beautifully tortuous environment where you, the audience, feel just as trapped as this family must in the middle of the woods.
The soundscape of the film also plays a large part in amping up the horrific elements, while striking a stark contrast from the more silent scenes. Screeching violins fly through the air, as if falling into some sort of Eyes Wide Shut type acid freak-out (I'm not sure I even really understand that simile, but I'm keeping it), creating an anxiousness that keeps you on the edge of your seat, even while the film takes its time between moments of action (which it is much better for). The soundscape never plays better than when (SLIGHT SPOILER for the rest of the sentence) the family performs an impromptu exorcism on one of the family members, where the room becomes chaotic and you feel the real weight of the consequences of isolation the family is suffering from. The screaming family and a slight, sustained note running under the scene help to build to a crescendo of simulated insanity. It is a breath-taking scene and propels this movie to a strong early contender for (easily) top-5 end of the year movies.
The VVitch, once again, is a small film which I don't want to delve too far into, because it is simply best left experienced. It is another strong contender in the new wave of smart, serious horror films that don't play down to the audience or rely on overused tropes to elicit a response from the audience. Only time will tell if Hollywood is ready to start producing these kind of small scale horror films, and The VVitch may very well be their litmus test to see if the market is there. For this simple reason I recommend seeing this while it's still in theaters, but also because it is an extremely strong film out the gate for Robert Eggers (like Sean Baker and Tangerine from last year), and a wonderfully anxious experience for any fan of horror.