“But James,” you say, “although it has a historical setting, Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch isn’t a historical film per se — it’s a horror movie.”
Well, OK. You’ve got me there. But unlike a lot of the movies I watch for this thing, it’s pretty good — the rare Movie Monday film that I wish I’d seen on the big screen, not for the visual spectacle, but just because I wouldn’t have been constantly distracting myself with other things as one does in one’s living room.
So, fine, whatever, it’s a horror movie that I liked, which is a rare enough thing. But the really interesting thing to me was the way in which The Witch uses its historical setting as part of its horror.
There are plenty of historical horror films, of course, and they’re mostly pretty dire: zombie movies but with knights, or things that presume all kinds of nonsense about witches and witch hunting. But this one tries to use its historical setting as an aspect of its horror.
That’s interesting because … hmm. This is tough to discuss if you haven’t seen the film.
A lot of horror movies deal with the idea of belief in the supernatural. You might get a film that’s couched in a belief in supernatural evil like The Exorcist, something where a supernatural evil takes out a bunch of materialistic moderns who don’t believe in it, like your typical mummy movie, or one where people’s belief in the supernatural is what leads to horror in a mundane world, like The Wicker Man.
The Witch doesn’t precisely follow either of those models. I don’t want to spoil the film, but this is a story where the historical mindset is genuinely relevant to the plot and characters, but neither the modern worldview nor the historical one is really “true.” Indeed, the audience’s presumed modern worldview is kind of … implicated isn’t the right word but I don’t know what the right word is … in the development of the horror.
This is interesting, because I think that’s quite rare for a historical piece that isn’t itself an adaptation of an older work. I’m not saying it’s some perfect evocation of 17th-century thinking; it’s a two-hour movie and I’m hardly an expert on that subject anyway. But it seems to be at least taking its effort to analyse and empathise with a pretty alien way of thinking seriously, which is something I’m always interested to see.
Anyway, tl;dr it’s pretty good.