The Witch is the latest in a recent collection of independent horror films that have jumped to mainstream attention due to overwhelmingly positive buzz from the festival circuit. The film even went as far as winning it’s first time writer/director, Robert Eggers, the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and it has been reported that he was given the job of writing and directing a remake of Nosferatu. Well then, if that doesn’t sound promising, I don’t know what is.
When a family is ordered to leave a New England settlement in the 1630s, they set themselves in a new place that they can call home, even if it is a civilization. Things seem fine enough, until one day, the baby goes missing under the watch of daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). A combination of high emotion, faith and superstition play into the family’s downward spiral as they believe that they are cursed by a witch.
With films like The Babadook and It Follows coming out of the woodwork and garnering mainstream attention, the horror genre is at a point that is more exciting than it’s ever been, especially in the indie scene. The Witch is no exception to the recent trend of smart horror films, in fact, it might also be the best of the bunch. Obviously, it can’t be compared to others, not just because of them being different films exploring different things, but The Witch truly is unlike any other horror film I’ve seen. Believe the hype, people, because we might have a classic in our hands.
Beware though, this is not the kind of horror film for those looking for surface level thrills or fast-paced spooks. The film is deliberately paced in a way where the mood, setting and atmosphere sink into you as if it is about to possess you. It’s a works in large part due to its vision and its fascinating exercise in aesthetics. For the easily bored, this will not satisfy. But for those willing to pay close attention, and really take an effort to absorb the feeling of the film, it will stick with you long after seeing it.
The Witch is also a technical triumph in every regard. From the tight and claustrophobic cinematography from Jarin Blaschke, the deeply unsettling music by Mark Korven, effective editing from Louise Ford and period accurate details in the costuming (Linda Muir), production design (Craig Lathrop) and dialogue. It gives the film a look that feels fresh, inventive and unique, even though individual elements and techniques are things we’ve seen before. However, when you add all those elements that Robert Eggers and his crew brought to the table, it makes the film, as a whole, offer a completely grounded, tangible and utterly gut-wrenching experience. It makes you wonder why early, New England-set horror isn’t already a huge thing in the genre.
With elements that bring to mind films like The Shining and Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, The Witch progresses like a never-ending nightmare, starting horribly for our protagonist, Thomasin, and getting continuously worse as it goes along. The film even begins with the title screen as “The Witch: A New England Folk Tale,” and the term “folk tale” really applies here appropriately in terms of its nightmarish logic. And while the film makes no qualms in making it clear early on for the audience that, yes, there is indeed a witch in the woods that is hell bent on terrorizing the family, no ambiguity here, the focus on the film is more on how the family completely breaks apart in trying to deal with the horror facing them. In these moments, the film will touch on subjects like faith, gender roles and sexuality, just to name a few, and these moments make the horror that much more personal and thus, more real.
To sell some of the deeper, subtextual elements in the story are some stellar performances from the cast. Anya Taylor-Joy makes a phenomenal debut with a gutsy role that goes into some dark places, psychologically speaking, and she does a great job, especially considering the kind of dialogue that the film is written with. Ralph Ineson and Katie Dickie have both in appeared in big films here and there, and neither are strangers to genre films, so their presence in the film is very natural and believable. Even the younger brother in the family, Caleb, played by Harvey Scrimshaw, who, despite a somewhat shaky start in the dialogue delivery, manages to pull off one of the most powerful and somber moments in the film. For a film so set on being as naturally “of that time period” as possible, it needed the actors to sell it all, and sell it they did.
As I already mentioned, this is the kind of movie that is destined to receive a post-hype backlash because it might not deliver the kind of “scares” that some were expecting going in, and I think it’s a bit ridiculous. The craftsmanship put into the film is beyond most films I tend to see from big budget, studio productions, which is insane considering we’re dealing with a first time director here. I don’t want to make any radical predictions here, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if we see tons of films in the future done in this style and/or time period, especially if The Witch ends up doing well in the box office. Sure, it’s not the kind of film that will make you scream every five minutes (though there is one scene where I straight up wanted to “NOPE!” right out the theater), but it will make your feet tap, your butt clench and your eyes wince. It is easily the most deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experiences I’ve had watching a horror film in a very, very long time. I think it’s best just to worship Satan from now on, just to avoid the trouble. 95/100