Vampires, zombies, werewolves – they’ve all made a comeback as of late, terrifying audiences anew. The same cannot be said of witches, which are seen nowadays as a figure of fun more than fear. Based on the strength of The Witch, however, it soon may be their turn in the sun – it is unsettling and generates physical terror.
A Puritan family in 1630 New England is exiled from their village, and they set up stock on a farm in the middle of the woods. Panic and despair envelop them when the youngest child, Samuel, suddenly vanishes. The family blame the oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who was watching the boy at the time of his disappearance. Suspicion and paranoia starts to rise – two twin siblings suspect Thomasin of witchcraft and, as evil seems to set its focus on the farm, the family’s faith, loyalty and love to one another is tested.
The Witch is director Robert Eggers’ first feature and, on the strength of it, it indicates good things to come. It is a masterclass of slow burn psychological horror, building throughout to the extent that even the more overtly horrific moments fail to diffuse the tension. It is dark and bleak, and each happening brings with it a sense of hopelessness for the family – whether or not you root for them, there is no optimism here. For those weary of packing a story with jump scares and calling it frightening, this is how it’s done (that’s not to say they are completely absent – there is one, but its employment is so out of whack with the rest of the film that it is actually scary).
The sense of period detail is exquisite here, from the grim visage of the farm to the authentic dialogue (even if, at some points, I didn’t quite understand what was being said). Placing a story about witches in this time period works massively to the film’s benefit – in the 21st century, no doubt we would find a wisecracking group of teenagers making snarky remarks at the monster. Here, the family do not know what they’re dealing with – there is a tangible sense of their God-fearing nature trying to make sense of the happenings, and it helps to light the powder keg in the farm. They can grasp only at bitter accusations, and the fear of not knowing who to trust is clear.
Eggers wisely mixes the supernatural horror with all-too human concerns – the lack of food, the fear for a missing child – upping the ante on two levels. The cast is fully committed, and as the father, Ralph Ineson puts his guttural Yorkshire drawl to excellent effect. Kate Dickie is suitably intense as the mother, and props even go to the child actors, as unusual as that is. Harvey Scrimshaw plays Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb, stalwart and principled and struggling to deal with his awakening sexuality in a place where the only comely woman is his elder sister.
Taylor-Joy is the anchor for this movie, commanding all the attention. She is marked out of the witch, and plays it with a blend of wide-eyed innocence and a bitter malevolent edge. This is her film and her reality – she conveys the devotion to her family and, ultimately, her defiance. I’ve read multiple interpretations of the film, but they all agree on one thing – Thomasin, and Taylor-Joy, is the heart of The Witch.
This is not a film for everybody – it is very slow, the dialogue can be incomprehensible and if you’re the kind of horror fan desperate for gore, you will be disappointed. However, for other members of the audience, this is a fantastic example of restraint being exercised to build a palpably scary atmosphere and, in doing so, a wonderfully intelligent horror film.
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), Bathsheba Garnett (The Witch)
Running Time: 92 Mins
Image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvRHjkxj0Xk