DIR/WRI: Robert Eggers • PRO: Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Jay Van Hoy • DOP: Jarin Blaschke • ED: Louise Ford • MUS: Mark Korven • DES: Craig Lathrop • MUS: Hans Zimmer • CAST: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
British folk horror packs its bags and sets sails to the New World. A Puritan family living in a New England community are excommunicated when the father, William (Ralph Ineson. Yes. That’s Chris Finch from the UK Office), commits the crime of prideful conceit. The family leaves the plantation with God on their side, alive in their hearts and infested in their brains. They discover new land, a new home and settle themselves. William builds a house on the cusp of some menacing woods, while his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie) prepares to give birth to her fifth child. Call me old fashioned, but I’d take it easy on the baby booming if I were unemployed, banished and living in exile. Baby steps. Several months later little Samuel is born into a cropless farming family. Times are hard, but William’s forceful faith assures his family that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
However, the sun never rises for the family, who become victims of an onslaught of supernatural activity. The eldest daughter, and film’s protagonist, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with the baby one day and roles are switched in the cruel game when Samuel disappears from her sight. The film doesn’t forge any illusions when it comes to the supernatural, which is intrinsic to its story. There is a witch in their midst and she has taken the infant, but unknowingly to the family, who are baffled by the mysterious disappearance. That is because the witch isn’t the core antagonist. We rarely see her, but when we do the visuals are striking. The real antagonist is blind faith and the hysteria of religion that tears the family apart. Christianity creeps throughout the film in an unsettling manner causing the “fear” to lie within.
Struck by overwhelming grief, Katherine lays the blame on Thomasin for the supposed negligence. The parents believe it’s a punishment from God as Samuel wasn’t baptised, asserting the idea of a vengeful deity, which does not settle well with second eldest Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who conveys overtones of inscestual desire for Thomasin. Life is rural isolation can do weird things to a young lad. Although, The Witch falls into the genre of supernatural horror, it is essentially a domestic drama. The walls are close in on the family and Thomasin becomes heavily scrutinised. A wave of Puritan paranoia crashes on the family and at times it’s difficult to decide which is worse – the Satanic rituals of the supernatural or the fanaticism of Christianity.
The director, Robert Eggers, gets great use out of his cast. Finchey’s Yorkshire accent is spoken through a fantastic subwoofer bass boom, while Scrimshaw’s God fearing and Thomasin’s increasing agnosticism attributes are spot on. Kate Dickie deploys those crazy eyes that’s a staple among creepy mothers in horror. But the best performance comes from a hellraising goat called Black Phillip, who gives an eerie presence everytime he comes into frame. Eggers has a flare for drama or psychological thriller, but lacks the pace and shlock for horror. The best scene of the film comes during an Exorcist homage when the family finally implodes. But for the most part The Witch relies on tone and unsettling transitions that give you the creeps, but not the terror.
Throw into the cauldron the paranoia of The Shining and the hysteria of The Crucible and you’ve got The Witch. What’s lacking is some eye of newt, a sense of playfulness. There have been an abundance of indie horror films recently that turn their nose up at horror customs and try to surpass the genre with an air of pretension. I was told by somebody before seeing The Witch that it was a step above horror films, which I registered with disdain. This idea of ideals trumping aesthetics is becoming more and more prominent within indie horror. The Witch is strongest in terms of its authenticity and slow-rising tension between the family, but doesn’t provide any real catharsis when it reaches boiling point. It lacks the exuberance of last year’s The Hallow, another folk horror that grabbed the horror conventions by the horns and went Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle with it.
In conclusion, The Witch certainly displays the craft and discipline of a fine director, but might not satisfy true horror enthusiasts or have the shelf life to become a genre classic.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Witch is released 11th March 2016