Movie Madness is a feature wherein I pit my top sixteen most anticipated films of the year against each other in a bracketed single elimination tournament because top ten lists can go do one.
The brackets as they currently stand.
Finally we come to the last heat for the left side of the board. This battle will determine which of our delightfully frightening horror duo will go up against the very first winner at the start of this competition in the quarter finals. So, introducing the competitors.
Firstly, weighing in at a very lean 92 minutes is the debut feature from Robert Eggers, darling of the inddependent horror circuit, The Witch.
And weighing in at a surprisingly lengthy 134 minutes, James Wan’s return to horror in between his bigger action pictures and second in the franchise, The Conjuring 2.
Where to even start with these two films? First of all, look how similar those posters are! Seriously, go ahead and scroll back up. Everything from the central placement of a silhouetted figure down to where the title is placed in relation to the main image of the poster, it’s uncanny! But honestly, the films themselves and their approach to the horror genre couldn’t really be more different.
The Witch is, in a word, subtle. Set in 1630s New England it concerns a pious family who have left their religious commune for being even more god-fearing than everyone else there, and are now making a go of life as farmers on the edge of a foreboding wilderness. The patriarch of the family is William, a man who attempts to lead his wife Katherine, his sons Caleb and Jonas, and daughters Thomasin and Mercy, ineffectually in their new lives. And to compound issues even further, their fifth child Samuel, an unbaptised baby, is stolen by a witch when Thomasin is playing with him at the edge of the wood.
What follows is the family breaking down as they give in to their various religious fears and succumb to sin. Every part of the film is rooted in the beliefs and values of the 1600s, even down to the language the characters use. At first I found the old timey language to be very alienating, but after ten minutes or so it became another part of the scenery.
And the scenery is definitely the thing to be commended here. The whole thing is shot in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which gives it a narrow focus more akin to older films. This gives the forest a very monolithic effect whenever the characters enter it. The lack of width in the image lends more height to the trees themselves, and gave me the feeling that anything or anyone could be lurking just off the screen at any time.
And that’s to mention nothing of Black Phillip, the family’s goat, who may just be my new favourite character of the year. He’s at least responsible for one of the biggest gasps I have produced from watching films this year, in a scene that I absolutely do not want to spoil under any circumstances.
The Witch is a slow burn, but it is never boring. The characters are very well drawn and the narrow aspect ratio and low key naturalistic colour grading combine with a dissonant scratching score by Mark Koven to build an oppressive atmosphere that never lets up, from the film’s opening through to its impressive final moments. I loved The Witch and I would put it up alongside It Follows and The Babadook as one of my favourite horror flicks of the last few years.
And honestly, before watching The Conjuring 2, I thought this battle was all but decided. The Witch was so strong thematically and as a film that I thought it was basically untouchable, especially by a film from James Wan, who is very much a known quantity at this point.
The truth is I underestimated The Conjuring 2. While it was very much in the same vein as the first film where we are presented with a haunted house and the Warrens are called in to help out. Taking the place of the Perron clan this time are the Hodgsons, a family from Enfield who are besieged by the poltergeist of an old man who claims they are living in his house.
It’s all good stuff really, and an early protracted haunting sequence produced a good couple of jumps from me, but it was a part later on involving a painting and the film’s main antagonist, the specter of a demonic nun, that has stuck in my mind the most. It’s a genuinely great and unnerving sequence, and one that I’m sure will go down well with the main horror audience, and is likely destined to be featured on many Buzzfeed “Top 10 scariest moments” lists for the next decade or so.
If James Wan has proven one thing, it’s that he can do this sort of thing with his eyes shut. Hell, he made The Conjuring 2 as a vacation from bigger budget action affairs like Furious 7 and Aquaman. He proves again here as he has in the past that he is very good at balancing larger casts and giving everyone solid screen time. While long for a horror flick, it never manages to outstay its welcome, even in a second act that focuses more on developing the characters of the Hodgsons and renewing audience sympathies in the Warrens themselves. A scene where Patrick Wilson picks up a guitar and strums through a clumsy Elvis cover would have been cringeworthy under the direction of a lesser filmmaker, but here it comes off as genuinely heartwarming.
The Conjuring franchise is an odd one in the horror space in that it follows the Warrens as protagonists rather than a central villain like Freddy or Jason or Jigsaw. And regardless of your opinion of the real life Warrens, the couple portrayed in the film are absolutely likable heroic figures, very much worthy of holding a franchise together. I will absolutely sit through as many of these as Wan wants to make, especially if he can hold the quality to the standard he has set with this second outing.
What initially seemed like an easy battle is actually more difficult than I imagined, but ultimately I do have to give the edge to The Witch. It had an atmosphere that genuinely creeped me out and made me feel uncomfortable in the cinema, and it genuinely impressed me as a debut feature. I’m so excited to see what Robert Eggers goes on to do next, and I hope someone out there is paying attention to give me more of this slow creeping horror I’m enjoying so much recently.
And that’s it for the first side of the board. I think you’ll agree that some interesting pairings have been set up there for the quarter finals. The next heat will be later on this month, when Midnight Special faces off against The Purge: Election Year, followed in August with the battle of the superhero features. After that it’s quite a wait until December for the final two heats, so I imagine I will start doing some of the quarter finals as the earlier films start to hit home video release, but I will update on that a little closer to the time. Until then, thanks for reading!