A God fearing farming family are preyed on by a malevolent witch from a neighbouring forest, who abducts their youngest child before turning on the rest of them.
Horror fans yearning for something more substantial than another genre remake or generic cash-in sequel can get ready to be elated, because The Witch is set to arrive in cinemas like a black light eradicating the MOR silage. Debut Writer/ Director Robert Eggers’ 17th century pulse-stopper is a livid, uncompromising beast. It’s invigorating supernatural drama exudes a raw, obdurate energy and a mysterious, clinical beauty. But don’t be totally enraptured by the stirring cinematography and austere rural settings, for The Witch is a hardened horror masterpiece that lunges for the throat (via the guts), haunts the subconscious and will tarnish your dreams like an agitated demon, hungry and hell-bent on claiming your soul.
Set in New England, during a time of adversity for God-fearing farmer William (Ralph Ineson) and his family. After being exiled from his previous occupation due to religious altercations, William and family is forced to move to an isolated farm overlooking a forest, deep in the American wilderness. Crops fail and illness breaks out in the bleakest of seasons before family nightmares worsen when new-born baby Samuel is abducted. Mother/ wife Katherine (a tremendous Kate Dickie) explodes into catatonic despair, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) endeavours to rationalise and William strives to be strong in the shadow of darkness, reaching out to God for support through prayer. Meanwhile, younger family members/ twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) accuse Thomasin of witchcraft before unveiling questionable traits of their own. Suddenly they are all forced into a petrifying physical and psychological mêlée with the rakish, malevolent creature who prowls the desolate forest beside them.
The witch resides in the shadows. She is a withered, wily, unyielding and a totally frightening creature with a tyrannical omnipresence that pervades every moment, even when she’s not on screen. Director Eggers skilfully crafts scenes to suggest she could be hiding in any of the many darkened corners, and while watching the film you will frequently find yourself staring deep into the shadows to see if you can spot her before she manages to jump out and scare you. But The Witch features no such cheap thrills or orchestrated boo jumps and is not in the business of light entertainment. The witch emerges sporadically but isn’t banished from the screen. Mostly manifesting as a spirit or day-dream, a paranoid vision or second voice within a character, but when she does appear you won’t forget her any time soon.
Ambiguous dread prickles leisurely from the outset as an immediate sense of unease is established, rousing trepidation and stabbing subtle shocks before the screaming begins. Frightening, fear-spiking moments are sparse yet deployed with consideration, while the overriding anguish is constant and (often) subtle, feeding into every dramatic, dialogue heavy meltdown as well as the heart-pounding suspense sequences. Eggers certainly knows how to master a scare, for The Witch’s horror is raw yet harvested within a simple narrative and a highly marketable premise that will help it sit well in the guise of something generic amidst lesser multiplex offerings.
Hammer Horror connotations are rife due to the setting and subject matter (it would have been wonderful if filmed in the 50s) but The Witch (the film) also radiates a stark Euro style suggesting art-house influences. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Hour of the Wolf spring to mind along with The Shining, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, Kill List, The Devils, The Witchfinder General and Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum are all woven into the milieu then fused with an arctic desolation for that sequestered Kubrickian tone. But despite comparisons to the aforementioned, The Witch still feels inimitable and alone.
Family conflicts erupt with the badly timed sexual awakening of eldest son Caleb (played by an excellent, powerful Harvey Scrimshaw), a devout Christian, like his father, troubled by impure thoughts that manifest into spiritual skirmishes and character clashes to augment the suspense sequences when they arrive. Themes of religious oppression simmer from subtext level to the surface with a dextrous plausibility lacking in most modern horrors. The awkwardness of Caleb’s sexual awakening evolves amidst the tension and is utilised by the witch, while dramas developing within the family, outside of their supernatural conundrum, are also deeply compelling, until the witch takes precedence in the film’s latter half.
All the main players are skilfully fashioned, complex creations conjured with fervour, including the children. The battles that arise and rage within their clan are meticulous, intricate and enrich the horror with a welcome depth. Eggers also utilises the unsettling score by Mark Korven (Cube) to instil discomfort along with the bleak settings, pervading religious themes as well as the witch herself. First seen scurrying under a cape through the bony trees and manifesting in various forms before revealing her true self at the end, in the film’s most frightening, heart-stopping sequence
Supposedly based on actual written accounts of the time which Eggers adopts to inform his dialogue using iconography and old English lifted from reports to embellish his story with factual heft. This helps augment the terror and kudos for the film on the whole, signalling it out as a high calibre work enriched in research and fact: the Salem witchcraft trials occurred at a similar time.
Distorted, screeching, evocative music feeds the screen action in the form of jagged, cacophonous strings, erratic, thumping drums and children singing, echoing the unnerving cries from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolith arrival scene. It is one of the many facets that augments what is a beautiful, rare, unforgettable horror that may mentally lacerate the lesser desensitised, but genre fans will adore it. Sure to be a strong contender for horror film of the year, if not one of the greatest of all time, The Witch is a totally unique, uncompromising work, embossed with electrifying shocks, spine-tingling dread and a vexing, haunted air. In a sea of makeshift sequels and plastic remakes The Witch should traumatise the most hardened of genre fans, as a first viewing suggests it’s one of the most strikingly frightening films ever made.
Words: Dan Goodwin