Hail Satan! Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw star in The Witch.
Director – Robert Eggers
Screenplay – Robert Eggers
Producer – Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Bekerman & Rodrigo Teixeira
Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
In 17th century New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family – wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) – have been excommunicated from their Puritan plantation for somehow being too religious for even the Pilgrims. Now exiled, they soon find a spot of land near the edge of a forest to begin a new life.
Months later, the family has managed to do well for themselves with their own farm and Katherine has also given birth to their fifth child, Samuel. But after Samuel mysteriously goes missing one day, they discover an unknown evil that lurks within the woods, one that will test each family member’s faith and loyalty in ways they will never forget.
Following similarly low-budgeted, horror fare like The Babadook, It Follows and Goodnight Mommy, The Witch is the next indie fright flick that, unfortunately, like those aforementioned three, is being marketed as the next “horror shocker” when it actually aims to provide something more substantial than just cheap thrills and violent kills.
Even with its minimal budget, debut writer/director Robert Eggers (who’s signed on to helm the upcoming remake of the 1922 silent film horror classic Nosferatu) goes to great lengths to recapture the Crucible-esque look and feel of 17th century New England (the story takes place before the Salem witch trials). From the wonderful set and costume design to the casting choices (much like the bear in The Revenant, I’ll be petitioning heavily to get the black goat, here affectionately named “Black Phillip”, a Best Supporting Actor nod) to the spot-on period dialogue, some of which was adapted word-for-word from written records, Eggers shows a sharp eye for all the details of the period.
Eggers is diving deeper than many of the conventional horror flicks seek to do, which is why, like a number of the smaller-scale, more thought-provoking horror films that we’ve gotten over the past few years, I worry that people throwing around “scariest film of the year” is gonna lead mainstream horror fans or slasher junkies into thinking this is something it’s not, only to wind up massively disappointed.
Yet that obviously shouldn’t deter you from seeing this film, that is unless you’re simply looking for cheap thrills. The Witch is frightening, but not in the “BOO!!” sense. Eggers slowly builds a sense of dread that lingers the very moment things go south for Thomasin and her family (Adam Stein’s impeccable, skin-crawling sound design adds to the dread), tormenting his characters through planted seeds of tragedy, doubt and distrust that slowly rot away into manipulation and religious paranoia. Much of the film’s terror comes from uncertainty what may or may not be lurking in the dark, and Eggers makes great use of light and shadow to prey on our fears, with Jarin Blaschke’s bleak cinematography and Mark Koven’s ominous score owing a big thank you to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Though the ambiguity of whether or not the family is just hysterical or truly haunted by something wicked that has come their way might be off-putting to those seeking a definitive answer, the true terror to be found in this film is not from any witch entity (though Eggers does treat us to a brief heart-stopping sequence in the woods involving a possible title character), but from this family slowly tearing itself apart from within.
The cast, though relatively unknown, is uniformly strong here. As the patriarch William, Ralph Ineson (the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones, the BBC version of The Office) commands the screen with a deep, gravelly-voiced gravitas. Despite his imposing presence, his desperation to appease his paranoid wife and his inability to provide for his family diminish his stature as head of the household. Eggers does make a bit of a misstep in having William switch allegiances too abruptly, but despite the rushed transition, Ineson’s performance is pitch-perfect. Kate Dickie (also from Game of Thrones) plays the matriarch Katherine with enough the fierce rage and hysteria to set the world on fire.
Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a fantastic turn and carries much of the film’s weight effortlessly, providing Thomasin, the film’s primary perspective, with a great deal of vulnerability and powerlessness. When such fragility is spurred on by the fact that she’s designated the scapegoat by pretty much every member of the family, she turns from delicate to intense in a convincing manner. Harvey Scrimshaw is equally strong as the conflicted younger brother Caleb, whose wandering eyes can’t help but notice his sister’s blossoming in certain areas (to make matters for his sister worse on the other end of the spectrum, she also has to deal with her mother’s deep mistrust of her). Even as a young actor, Scrimshaw’s required to not only tackle the period dialogue but also some of the more emotionally heavy scenes, but he accepts the challenge and succeeds wonderfully.
Eschewing cheap thrills and effects for an emphasis on mood and thought-provoking storytelling, The Witch works unsettling wonders as an exercise in tense, slow-building horror and is hopefully the beginning of two potentially strong careers for writer/director Robert Eggers and star Anya Taylor-Joy. Fans of conventional horror films may find nothing of interest here, but those who prefer the kind of horror that preys on our fears through the power of suggestion will come away from this highly satisfied.
I give The Witch an A- (★★★½ ).
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