There are many remarkable things about Robert Eggers’ horror film The Witch, but foremost of all is that the story takes place in a time and environment that none of us have ever experienced and yet succeeds in telling an utterly recognizable and terrifyingly human story that hits home all too familiarly.
Set in 17th century New England, we follow the plight of William and his family, excommunicated from their village as a result of the father’s “prideful conceit”, who establish a small, austere farmstead on the edge of a dark, foreboding wood.
When the newborn baby disappears while in the charge of the eldest daughter, events are set in motion that will challenge their faith, their family and their lives.
What follows is a tale that we’ve perhaps seen before, but told with such care for period authenticity and with such sheer intensity that it’s hard not to consider this one of the finest horror films made for a long time.
Eggers infuses each sequence, each shot even, with a deep sense of dread, making this incredibly intense viewing, barely giving us room to breathe for 93 minutes. The film gnaws at you, building to a disturbing, emotional climax I doubt will soon be forgotten. This is great filmmaking that doesn’t fall back on easy scares, there are no black cats jumping out unnecessarily or doors banging to create false scares.
What we get instead is a horrifying view of a family falling apart, of building resentments and suspicions laid bare, mixed in with deeply unhealthy doses of religious fervour (or belief, your mileage will vary), with little hope for a happy ending. Christian love and compassion are quickly subsumed by religious hysteria, and Christian fear of sin and the dark forces of evil.
However one of the film’s strengths is also one of its weaknesses. We’re quickly left in no doubt that there is a genuine supernatural presence at work here, but because the story is so compelling and the performances are so strong I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps a little more uncertainty might have made this an even richer, more layered experience. The final shots in particular left me wanting a less is more approach, but the film is at least strong in its convictions.
Talking of performances, Ralph Ineson (as William, the father) and Anya Taylor-Joy (as eldest daughter, Thomasin) are both achingly brilliant here. Ineson is always a pleasure to watch, and really runs with the bit between his teeth at this co-leading role, making you both admire and curse his character’s pride. Newcomer Taylor-Joy is equally magnificent, giving her character’s eventual fate a great deal of poignancy. In fact the entire cast, including the also always great Kate Dickie, is uniformly excellent. Of course, because this is a horror film these are the kinds of wonderful acting roles that will never be remembered at Oscar time, see Essie Davis in The Babadook as another example of this blind absurdity, but should in fact be showered with awards.
The Witch also features one of the best cinematic goat performances ever, and I guarantee Black Phillip is creepy as all get out.
Superb acting, directing, editing, lighting and production design (which shouldn’t surprise, as Eggers is a former production designer) are topped off by Mark Korven’s score, sombre and jittery and guaranteed to get under your skin. The Witch comes layered in authenticity, everything’s beautifully textured – you can practically feel the mud and smell the forest, and the smart use of period dialogue underlines this.
When the majority of horror films involve impossibly beautiful young people with interchangeable (barely) characters, it’s remarkable that Eggers has given us a film that not only speaks to human experiences and failings, and not only makes those experiences recognisable and relatable, but also manages to resonate and unnerve.
The Witch is that rare film that makes me want to immediately watch it again. Next time though, I’ll do it with the lights on.