At once psychologically complex and viscerally terrifying, ‘The Witch’ is a horror movie with ideas on its mind and blood in its mouth. First time writer/director Robert Eggers immediately announces himself as a force to be reckoned in the genre with a tremendously accomplished film that just happens to be pants-soilingly terrifying.
The story dabbles in the era of the Salem Witch Trials insanity and toys with the terror found in that hysteria, while also literalizing the supernatural fears fostered in that age. It’s elegant and nasty, arty and intense. A horror film that demands to be taken seriously and delivers on those promises, ‘The Witch’ already feels like it’ll be around and discussed for quite some time, even if it’s only just been released.
Set in 1630s New England, this folk horror tale kicks off with a family forced out of a Puritan village because they were a little too religious for the community (not exactly a good sign). The father (Ralph Ineson, a.k.a. Finchy from ‘The Office’, though completely different here) moves his family to a small cabin on the edge of some particularly foreboding woods. Shortly after they arrive, the infant member of the clan is kidnapped by what can only be described as a withered old hag who promptly sacrifices the child by a fire. Back in the cabin, tensions flare up, paranoia broods, and crops fail.
Aside from endless chopping wood, William (Ineson) can’t seem to do anything right and is constantly reminded so by his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), who’s on the verge of collapse. Eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) holds together the strongest under the harsh conditions. Well, she does until some harmless joking about witchcraft prompts everyone to point fingers. Her brother (the delightfully named Harvey Scrimshaw) is sprouting into puberty and finds himself feeling funny feelings about his sister (and even funnier ones about the mysterious maven who beckons him into the woods). Meanwhile, the youngest twin siblings (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) keep giggling and chatting to the family goat in a manner that is anything but pleasant.
From its opening moments, ‘The Witch’ drips in an atmosphere of dread that never wavers. Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke linger on musty, frozen and foreboding images that bring even the quietest moments a sense of impending doom. As a work of pure atmosphere and sustained tension, the film is a remarkable achievement. It’s a shock to the system when the infant attack occurs barely a few minutes into the picture. That sequence is a particularly rough watch, but done with purpose since Eggers then focuses on the claustrophobic fears and paranoia of the family for quite awhile. It speaks a great deal to the skills of the uniformly excellent cast that he’s able to generate just as much tension from the domestic panic as his supernatural horror show. Viewers may even start to question whether the opening sequence was real or actually a nightmarish fantasy, and that’s all part of the plan.
‘The Witch’ was meticulously researched and is filled with period detail. Dialogue is florid and stylized (often pulled from court transcripts of the era to ensure accuracy). It takes time for the ear to adjust, but thankfully the actors (even the youngsters) find the emotional core and ensure that the dialogue is never a chore. The performances, especially from Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and first-timer Anya Taylor-Joy, are incendiary. The Satanic panic in play is horrifying and teases out themes of the misogynistic fears embedded in the American witch trials rather vividly.
Then, once Eggers has endeared viewers to his characters and created their own dreaded parlor games, the supernatural sneaks in to devour the story. This material is also period-specific and carefully curated from the folklore and fears of the era. It’s witchcraft robbed of any sense of playful magic and witches presented without a lick of cartoonish charm. The movie is a filthy, nasty and intense dive into a world of black magic that pulls no punches and will leave audiences devastated – all backed by a hauntingly dissonant score that leaves little breathing room.
‘The Witch’ is one of those rare horror outings pitched halfway between grueling genre thrills and heady human drama that manages to satisfy both elements without sacrificing either. Filled with long difficult discussions that might wear out some of the horror crowd as well as graphic imagery that will push those without much tolerance for the genre to the edge, it’s not an easy film. However, for that specific audience who like their art and scares intertwined, it’s one of the best genre outings to emerge in far too many years.
For a film this ambitious and accomplished to burst out of a first-time filmmaker is rather special. With his debut, Robert Eggers has proven himself to be one of the best horror directors working today. It’ll be a tough act to follow, but given how incredibly difficult it must have been to pull off ‘The Witch’, I’d bet that Eggars is up to the task.