Directed by: Robert Eggers.
Written by: Robert Eggers.
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Lucas Dawson (Jonas), Ellie Grainger (Mercy).
The last few years have been great for horror movies – as new directors like Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) – to name just a few – have crafted films that know their horror movie history, and twists it in new, exciting and at times downright tarrying ways. You could now add Robert Eggers’ brilliant debut feature, The Witch, to that list – it is a horror movie that works as a slow burn, earning even its jump cut scares, and plays with our expectations throughout. This is a movie about a family who is gradually destroyed – and while there is a supernatural element to the film, they mostly do it to themselves.
The movie is set in the 1600s in New England – and in the opening scene the central family is thrown out of their new community for some, unspecified reason – and patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) isn’t too happy about it, pretty much telling the entire community they are going to hell, and that none are as Holy as he and his family. The family ends up on a grey abyss of a farm (there are few color movies so devoid as color as this one), isolated from everyone else in the New World by a sinister looking forest. It doesn’t take long as this far from idyllic location to become downright terrifying – the family’s youngest child, still a baby, is snatched from their oldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she plays peek-a-boo with him – and in a blink of an eye, there is no trace left of him. Eggers doesn’t wait too long to let the audience know what happened to the child – in a scene that is as disturbing and nightmare inducing as anything else you will see, that also lets you know that Eggers will not be pulling any punches for the rest of the movie.
From there, the movie is basically about how this family is torn apart by paranoia and an obsession with sin – so obsessed are the parents with living by God’s laws, and free from sin, they do not really realize what is happening before their eyes – their desire to be so Holy, actually makes it easier for them to become the precise opposite. As William, Ralph Ineson is quite good – a man obsessed with his religion, but who cannot control his own family. He is scared of his wife – Kate Dickey, brilliant – and horrible as a farmer, hunter, father and husband. His wife is even worse than he is, as the two of them feed each other’s religious fervor – after all, if they have been as good as they think they have been, why would God be punishing them? It has to be the Devil behind it all. Thomasin is really the central character in the film – the eldest daughter, who is eyed suspiciously by the family almost from the start, as she was the one watching the baby when it went missing (she is also eyed, with curious pre-pubescent lust by her brother, and her maturing body and sexuality may be another reason she is eyed so suspiciously by her family). She does herself no favors when she tries to scare one of her younger siblings, half of a set of twins, by telling her that she really is a witch. Then again, the twins don’t do themselves any favors by being so friendly with a goat. All of this just simply feeds the family’s paranoia.
The Witch is a slow burn of a horror movie – it is disturbing and frightening in the extreme, with a few nightmare inducing moments, but it never becomes overtly bloody – preferring to let the horror grow in the mind of the audience more slowly and subtly. The film is precisely the opposite of so many horror movies – where some supernatural presence starts attacking a regular family, who then band together to try and fight them off (think Poltergeist). In The Witch, the fragile bonds that are barely keeping this family together are busted completely when it is attacked. Marred only by an over the top performance by youngster Harvey Scrimshaw as the eldest son Caleb (and to be fair it’s only one key scene where he is quite bad) The Witch is a movie that gradually builds up the tension, right up until its memorable finale. For a long time, the horror movie landscape didn’t have a whole lot to offer. The Witch is the most recent example of why that is changing. One of the best horror films of the year.