Witch review – occultist gothic horror takes a swerve into the psychedelic

Estimated read time 2 min read

After kicking off with an atmospheric but orthodox piece of hoary British witchfinder gothic, Witch takes a genuinely unexpected and ambitious swerve after 45 minutes; as if writer-directors Craig Hinde and Marc Zammit had divined a scenario through a Ouija board during a fly agaric bender in the small hours. Divulging it would earn a dose of the ducking stool, and in any case it’s not quite clear that all the details hold up. But to broach the general nature of their devilry, it zooms this story of religious persecution out into a multiverse-type entanglement.

In 1575, the Horned One appears to have targeted the town of Dawnbrook; a woman takes to its streets carrying her parents’ severed heads. But at the murderer’s trial, blacksmith’s wife Twyla (Sarah Alexandra Marks) unexpectedly finds herself in line for a 16th-century cancellation when the accused fingers her as a diabolic accomplice. The uncanny thing is that this development was predicted by Thomas (Russell Shaw), the raving drifter about town who, given the pentangle-covered grimoire he is carrying, probably bears listening to. So she, staunch hubby William (Ryan Spong) and this dungeon-dodging Gandalf head for the woods.

What is revealed to them is genuinely mind-expanding, ripping open the obscurantist horizons of a backwater painted in thorough civic detail by Hinde and Zammit; from the enterprising bar keep, amazing the locals with the miracle of gin, to the officious sheriff. It feels living, bustling and malodorous. But given how the pair readily summon up sharp, backlit traditional Hammerish ambience on cue, they disappointingly don’t go one stage further towards the kind of intense psychedelic visuals that, say, Ben Wheatley might have wreathed Thomas’s spaced-out concepts.

Quite a bit of the acting is also missing some period patina, only partly redeemed by a gristly turn from Daniel Jordan as the judge champing at the bit to purify Dawnbrook. Meanwhile, the particulars of how the occultist party plans to execute its mission do get a bit hard to decipher – possibly indulging in the storytelling dark arts, like convenient vagueness, on the way. But if Witch, in the words of the goat from Robert Eggers’ near-identically named 2015 film, doesn’t quite live deliciously, it does show a freethinker’s willingness to experiment.

Source: theguardian.com

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