The Witch: A New England Folktale Film Review

the witch film

Isolation and fear lie at the heart of The Witch, an award-winning horror film based an New England folktale.

Do you love old ghost stories, folktales, and witchcraft? Did you read Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Young Goodman Brown in school and love the creepy, old-world setting of rural New England? Do you listen to stories of the Salem witchcraft trials and get goosebumps when you recall the trials were real?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, or you enjoy good horror films with witchcraft, supernatural elements and possession, then stop what you’re doing and watch The Witch.

Hitting cinemas in 2016, The Witch was winner of the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Category in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

The award is well-deserved.

Prepare yourself for a spectacular retelling of a New England folktale with impressive attention to detail. The film examines court documents, folk narratives and journal entries from the time period to create a representation of early American witchcraft that aims to be as accurate as possible.

A young puritan woman named Thomasin and her family are ex-communicated from their village when her devoutly Christian father refuses to renounce his interpretation of beliefs to the counsel. Along with her younger siblings, Thomasin struggles to help her parents build a homestead in the wilderness and accumulate food for the winter. When her mother gives birth for a fifth time, Thomasin takes over some of the caretaking duties for baby Samuel.

Then Samuel disappears on Thomasin’s watch.

Did he starve? Was he dragged by wolves into the forest? Or does the cause of his disappearance lie even closer to home? As Thomasin is blamed for her brother’s death, misfortune befalls the farm. When the young twins accuse Thomasin of witchcraft, she appears to nurture their accusation as a means to frighten them into keeping up with their chores.

Then little Caleb disappears, too.

Are dark forces really at work?

Don’t watch The Witch expecting jump scares or loads of special effects. The film relies on dark, bleak imagery to create an atmospheric build-up that intensifies throughout the film. Loneliness, despair and homesickness seem to be represented by the thick woods bordering the house—the very woods that hold the legend of the Witch within.

This is one of the few films that make the woods seem scary without relying on special effects. There are no CGI twisty vines or clouds of billowing smoke, but the pressing in of the trees is an ever-present threat. Many horror movies have well-lit interiors which leave the audience wondering what is there to be afraid of, but the flickering shadows and dim firelight of the film help the viewer appreciate just how terrifying it must have been to be all alone in the New England wilderness.

Some of the scarier aspects of the film might not be as obvious to viewers who are unfamiliar with old witchcraft stories. The very symbolism that makes the film’s ending so rewarding can easily be overlooked. The viewer who has a fondness for flipping through old fairy tale books and listening to ghost stories around a blazing campfire will love this movie.

The Witch has a limited theatrical release and will be available on DVD May 2016.