Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson
The horror genre has seen all variety of evil beings throughout its illustrious history. The living dead, vengeful spirits, stalking slashers, and giant monsters have all had their day to scare. But there is one monster that consistently holds a place in nightmares, the witch. There are more than a few people who were creeped out as kids by the cackling green wicked witch and the decrepit, cloaked witch offering an apple. While the mythology behind witches has become restrained by kid friendly renditions seen in the Harry Potter franchise, the reality is that the historical nature of the witch is far more dark and malicious. “The Witch” is an impressive directorial debut from Robert Eggers, it takes folklore and turns it into a mature examination of fear on numerous levels, fashioning one of the most stunning and unsettling horror films of the last decade.
It’s 1630, William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their three children are forced to leave their New England community over religious indifferences. William leads his tight-knit family to a remote territory at the edge of the forest, hoping to sustain his family by living off the land and things slowly begin to go terribly wrong. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest child; she has many responsibilities around their new home including helping her mom care for the newborn baby. Under Thomasin’s care the newborn is snatched away during a playful game of peek-a-boo. This is the beginning of the family’s dismantling by evil forces living in the forest.
There have been some exceptional horror films that have come out over the past years, “The Babadook”, “It Follows”, and “The Conjuring” are a few that come to mind. What separates good horror from mediocre horror, and this applies to most films, is an understanding of the genre and how the use of convention and the structure of story accommodate one another best and most effectively. It’s not only about jump scares and gore, it’s about building an atmosphere that pulls the viewer into the world and establishes an identity that can be manipulated by the characteristics familiar to the genre.
“The Witch” does all of this exceptionally well. The setup is a 1630’s Puritan foundation in the New World. The community is steeped in religious fundamentalism, controlled by a doctrine influenced by fear and motivated by judgment and repentance. Take these elements and inject evil doings like witchcraft and black magic and the story becomes a struggle of dark overtaking light. But director Robert Eggers understands that there is more to the composition than just these elements, from this starting point Mr. Eggers introduces the struggle of a family leaving the familiar and moving into the unknown, from the departure with their homeland in England and the banishment from their religious community in the New World, this family is experiencing immense change. They are quickly recognized as outsiders in a new society, forced to survive by any means necessary. And survival, as seen in many cinematic affairs, has a way of changing people, of making them see the world in different, threatening ways. These narrative elements help create interesting dynamics when applied to aspects of family, faith, and fear.
The minimalistic qualities within the film are exceptionally rendered. The photography, which is shot as if the clouds are slowly capturing the sky, composes imagery that is beautiful in both its subdued and terrifying moments. Most of the photography is shot within natural settings creating an environment on the verge of darkness many times, the score is often touched with silence saving big sound for the big payoffs of shock.
The family is a fascinating mix. A father whose biggest foe is his pride, a mother racked with guilt and sorrow, and two maturing children dealing with new emotions. Thomasin, played splendidly by Anya Taylor-Joy, matures consistently throughout the course of the film. Her timid demeanor transitions into one that is resolute and confident, all the while everything around her unravels in the worst possible way. Is her maturation a calling to the forces that lurk in the woods? Her progression is influenced by characters like Suzy Bannion from “Susperia” or even Carrie White from “Carrie”. Caleb, the intense yet delicate Harvey Scrimshaw, is also experiencing a rush of feelings. Whether the inherent role during this time of men embodying protector and provider characteristics or the sexual curiosity of a young man at the crossing line of puberty, Caleb is enticed in numerous ways. Mr. Eggers utilizes these characters in creative ways, allowing the dramatic elements to float slowly to the surface as the dread mounts.
Dread may not come close to describing the sensation the “The Witch” produces. It’s something more, something darker and more authentic than the term embodies. It’s a nightmare that you can’t wake up from, one that lures you into the world and then forces you to keep going when you want to turn back. “The Witch” is simply impressive filmmaking that crafts a relentlessly tormenting horror film.
5.00 out of 5.00