The Witch Movie Review 0 175

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WHAT makes a truly successful, memorable horror movie? Is it a handle on atmosphere? The ability to make the hairs stand on the back of your neck? To have a deeper meaning beyond the surface? The Witch, a quietly terrifying arthouse-inflected religious horror, fulfils all those things and more to make for a singularly unnerving piece of modern horror filmmaking.

Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, the film is set in the early 17th century and centres on a devoutly Christian family – headed by the extremely strict William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) – who are forced out of their small community because of their stubborn beliefs. Setting up a new home on the edge of the woods, the tension is mounted and escalated to nerve-shredding levels as the family start to feel an evil presence lurking amongst the trees.

This is personified at first when the baby of the family mysteriously disappears right in front of teenage sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). This is followed by one of the sons found catatonic in the woods, leading to fears that something may have “claimed” him and paranoia that one of other children might be actually be a witch.

This is a traditional horror but in a now untraditional sense – that is, it doesn’t adhere to what modern audiences have grown accustomed to from the genre in recent years. Trite jump scares, clichéd characters and cheap gore are off the menu here in favour of something far more insidiously disturbing.

Underpinning the piece are themes of faith, devotion, superstition and the fear of God. Debut director Robert Eggers approaches these things in a strikingly ambiguous and thought-provoking manner, never feeling like it’s jamming sermons down your throat. He carefully controls the tone of the film with a sparse but creepily effective score, uncomfortably intimate indoor drama populated with loaded silences and elongated shots of the wooded location held hanging to let us ponder and soak in the fear-drenched atmosphere.

It asks fascinating questions about the nature of adherence to religion and stringent belief thereof, the way it can be used as a coping mechanism to help in extreme conditions and isolation (physical, mental and spiritual). But it also looks at how it can be misused when fearing forces in the world that you don’t understand, such as when the father abuses his status within the family to control them as a way to stop what’s happening yet inadvertently destroying what he holds dear in the process.

The Witch is labelled as a horror film and rightly so; it does its job as one that gets under your skin in precise, detailed, unforgettable fashion. But it’s about a whole lot more than just scaring you with aesthetics, seeking to make you think just as much as creep you out.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Killing Ground 0 650

This review was previously published at The National.

This audacious and especially gruelling Aussie horror-thriller from short film-turned-feature director Damien Power centres on a young couple, Ian (Ian Meadows) and Margaret (Maya Stange), who take a camping trip with their baby to a remote and idyllic spot in a national park.

Once there they discover another group’s camping gear, however the people are nowhere to be seen. Upon some investigation they find themselves a part of a gruesome crime perpetrated by a couple of unknown assailants who appear to be hunting them down.

This impressive debut exemplifies the horror genre’s unique ability to unnerve an audience, lulling us into a false sense of security as so many horror films do with a pair of amiable leading characters and a sunny prospect of a calm holiday retreat before slamming home the horrific truth of the matter.

Using a very clever narrative structure of flitting back and forth between the present couple’s predicament and what exactly happened to the group that set up camp before them, the film drags us by the scruff of the neck down a gruesome and astutely disquieting road that makes for equal parts compelling and shocking viewing.

The horrifying events are amplified by Power’s decision to shoot them with a serene passivity. He allows the unfolding threat and repulsive violence to occur in an almost matter-of-fact manner, utilizing stillness captured by the beautiful cinematography to offset the horror. It conjures a deeply uncomfortable sense that, adding to the film’s largely cynical disposition, bad people exist in the world who commit terrible acts and there’s often nothing we can do about it.

Killing Ground effectively continues the line of grizzly Aussie horrors like Long Weekend, Wolf Creek and The Loved Ones, as well as particularly evoking the Brit gem Eden Lake. This is an example of cinema that knows how to ramp up the tension by never being afraid to show the brutal reality of a scarily believable predicament – in every way it’s unapologetically not for the faint-hearted.

7.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Home Again 0 634

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10