Robert Eggers’ creepy, low-budget debut was released to critical acclaim a couple of months ago, with much of the praise reserved for its authentic period detail and dialogue – it’s set in New England circa 1630 – and the acting, which is far better than your average horror film. Most of the reviews I read at the time also spoke highly of Eggers’ ability to gradually build the tension – or stir the cauldron, if you will – without reverting to horror staples like jump scares. In actual fact The Witch does include a couple of sudden shocks during a bloody final act, but Eggers’ times these well, and you could argue he has earned the right to use them by that point in the film. And yes, in the hands of this first-time director the narrative is sculpted into a dark, satanic apex with skill: the titular witch is used sparsely and judiciously for the first hour, and both her presence and her witchcraft is felt more than it is seen, while those she terrorises whip themselves into a collective and delirious religious frenzy.
The story centres around one family, cast out from a Puritan compound on what seems to be a point of principle for the father, Caleb (Ralph Ineson, best known to UK viewers as Finchy in The Office, and deliberately styled here to resemble Jesus Christ). His eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the one who protests the loudest at having to leave this settlement, and she’s also the one who misses England the most, regaling one of her three younger siblings with tales of the country’s fancy glasswork, which she misses. Her coveting of certain comforts and material objects is perhaps significant, and after the family set up a new home next to some woodland a strange event occurs that involves Thomasin and devastates everyone, though particularly the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie). Thomasin is blamed for this and other weird occurrences, which she may or may not be consciously or subconsciously responsible for, and gradually her alliances within the family – with her parents and her brothers and sister – are systematically destroyed as levels of fear and paranoia increase.
Throughout Eggers switches between the creepy woodland next to the family’s new home, in which animals seem to watch the humans as if suddenly taken over by evil spirits, and the home itself, which sits nearby in a clearing and initially seems like a safe haven. (Later on, when the family fractures and certain children are locked away, the interior spaces become very dark and claustrophobic, though it’s not exactly contrasted with outdoor brightness.) Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke films the landscape with muted colours: the weather is usually foggy or misty and the faded greens and browns used suggest that nature is suffering in the area, or poisoned and dying. The long shots of the family’s cabin reveal their isolation, as does Caleb’s refusal to ride for help when one family member becomes ill, and the suspense increases as you realise how vulnerable these settlers are. Yet it’s their estrangement from each other, rather than the wider New England community they once belonged to, that becomes significant. Despite the supernatural presence in the woods, The Witch at its most engrossing when it plays with the idea of parents abandoning – or no longer protecting – their children, and the scenes in which family members turn on one another and accusations fly linger in the memory longer than the occultish chills. For a first-timer working with a tiny budget Eggers has crafted a remarkably assured film; it’s possible to read it as a tale about environmental revenge, but regardless of interpretation it convinces as a straight period drama as well as a scary movie.
Directed by: Robert Eggers.
Written by: Robert Eggers.
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson.
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke.
Editing: Louise Ford.
Running Time: 93 minutes.