Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Robert Egger’s directorial debut, The Witch, is something that even the most seasoned of horror fans may find difficult to digest in some regard. Not out of visceral disturbance, or even the density of its authentic 17th century dialogue, but because the manner in which Eggers has chosen to tell this story of a Puritan family being terrorised by an unknown spectral presence is so serious, dark and hauntingly sincere that the miracle of its straight-faced demeanour makes the film’s very presence feel like a taboo is being broken before our eyes.
Much like The Exorcist, which takes its subject matter of demonic possession with a deliberate sense of honesty and thoughtfulness, from the opening scenes, the witch of the title becomes one of the film’s most startling revelations; it’s real. An actual, cackling, baby snatching, broom flying, Satan-worshipping crone. From this moment on, The Witch descends into what can only be described as a living nightmare for both the family at the centre, unaware of the genuine danger they are facing, and the audience in their utter powerlessness to warn them.
Egger’s screenplay is thick with allegory and historical authenticity, it feels like a lived-in world in which the interpretations of these characters will be met by what people chose to bring to it. It is as faithful a translation of Puritan belief systems to screen as any film has fully accomplished. So compelling are the conflicts at the centre of the drama that the film could be viewed less like a traditional horror film, and more like a document which is slowly devoured and distorted at the edges by the mythic folklore that it’s unshakably bound to.
The bloodcurdling horror of The Witch comes from the nature of the situation that this family are facing, and not the frightful tactics of its shockingly suited director. The rot at the heart of this family, driven from their own society due to their uncomfortable mania surrounding sin, seems to be the very thing that is drawing the witch towards them. Evil is something that soaks into the film through the presentation of its deathly landscape, infecting the homestead of a family doomed from the moment they enter the wilderness.
The atmosphere of the film is one of constant dread that something terrible could befall them at any moment, calmed only by moments of sheer alarm when the unseen menace rears its head in new and unsettling ways, and Egger’s direction at these specific instances is skin crawling. Its dour cinematography gives its picturesque frames a dirty realism, a sense of hopelessness matched by its irregular editing techniques and unhinged score by Mark Korven. Populated by animals of varying function, there’s an indisputable impression being given of eyes everywhere watching this family. From the most worrisome looking rabbit that keeps evading capture, to Black Phillip, a show-stealing goat of inexpressible creepiness who may or may not be the most malevolent presence in the entire film.
Though the performances from the native Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as the addled parents are played with growling, panic-stricken ease, it’s the children of the piece who really come into their own. The young Harvey Scrimshaw as the eldest son, Caleb, delivers some astonishing work in the second act, as do the young terrors that portray the tormenting young twins with spectacular range for their age. But the film really belongs to newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest daughter, Thomasin, who like her brother is coming of age in an environment where any shred of natural desires will be decried as an act of weighted sin. She’s a wonderful presence who sells the transformation beautifully as she comes to terms with the incapability of their prideful father to provide for them, and the nature of her faith being sustained in this site of spiritual desolation.
The final act of the film, in particular it’s ending, is a pill that some will find hard to swallow. But given The Witch’s candour, its excellence in presentation and its nigh-faultless screenplay and technical ability, it’s an experience that works its way under your skin in the most subtle of ways. Defiantly delivering on its destined promises without a single breath withheld, it’s one of the most characteristic, exquisite and uncomfortable films in its respected genre that will haunt you through till the early hours.