The word “candlepower” is a very old-fashioned word that once was used by cinematographers for their measurements of the degree of illumination in movie scenes. The exceedingly low “candlepower” in “The Godfather,” for instance, was revelatory in its time.
There are magnificently photographed scenes in Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” where the word should be brought back from disuse to describe what you’re seeing. As with the epochal paintings by Caravaggio and DeLaTour, you’re seeing stunning images sculpted out of darkness by the available candlelight. The result is uncannily beautiful – far and away the best thing about the film.
I hasten to mention that about “The Witch” because I want to be as fair as possible to a movie I heartily dislike. On the fairness side of any ledger must also come this: The film enjoys a high critical reputation among many other critics, many of whom I hold in high regard.
Because it’s just a horror film, even of an upscale sort, one can always fall back on the simplest binary scale to convey the film’s effectiveness: You’re either scared or not, just as you either laugh at comedies or you don’t.
I found one scene early on in “The Witch” completely arresting and chilling: a beautiful teenage girl (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing “peek-a-boo” with her family’s new baby out in the deserted woods. She covers her eyes with her hands, then suddenly opens them and says “BOO!” to the baby. The baby is delighted.
So she keeps on doing it. Except that after the fourth time she does it, she opens her hands and discovers that the baby has disappeared.
That too, I found altogether stunning in a horror film that could have been crammed with much terror.
It’s not that bad things don’t start happening to this 17th century family from the minute they’re thrown out of their community for possessing Puritan ideals too stringent even for their neighbors.
Before it’s over, the family’s ram – called “Black Philip” – goes nuts and butts Dad, the family’s young twins collude in torturing their teen sister and the oldest son disappears into the sinister night, too.
Things in the woods are not going at all well, which is conveyed in the kind of stylized 17th century language that Arthur Miller barely made serviceable in “The Crucible.” It’s used here because, as writer/director Eggers reminds us after the film is over, much of what we’ve seen and heard has been taken directly from original 17th century accounts of what had been said and happened and fantasized.
If you’re interested in 17th century Puritan hysteria at its most authentic, I suppose you’ll be frightened by “The Witch.” If you want to actually learn some history about Puritan hysteria in the 17th century, you might want to read “The Witches: Salem 1692.”
Unfortunately, those of us who have never found Puritan hysteria interesting enough to watch a re-enactment – not even when Miller turned it into an allegory of late-1940s and early ’50s politics – are going to have to level with you and admit that whatever you can place on the “being fair” side of the ledger doesn’t stop “The Witch” from being deeply annoying, from beginning to end.
All of this seems to have something to do with the repressed sexuality of the family’s teens. The lack of specificity about what that is, though, just becomes another thing that makes “The Witch” more bothersome and tedious than scary.
There are interesting performances by unfamiliar actors Joy, as the teenage daughter, and Ralph Ineson, whose deep voice seems to say “thou shalt not” even when he’s actually saying no such thing.
Let me admit that I was genuinely horror-stricken by “The Blair Witch Project.” Contemporary teens driving themselves crazy in the woods actually seemed scary to me. Families in the 17th century who seem to expect witchy doings as the price of their spirituality are just not my idea of a movie. A book? Sure, but not a movie.
What happens to this family at the very end is, no doubt, going to cause a lot of discussion on the ride home.
Not from me. All I could think of is what it’s going to look like in the Broadway musical version.
Not my thing, I’m afraid. I’m sure there’s an audience that will be happy with it though.
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Director: Robert Eggers
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.
The Lowdown: A 17th century family exiled to the woods is beset by decimating witchcraft.