Witches are hard to make scary. They are a prevalent figure throughout folklore, and have been for hundreds of years, be it in cautionary children’s tales, or more macabre tales of straight-up horror. When such a character, style or figure such as this feels sapped of originality, it is often a wise decision to take the figure in question back to its roots. Director/writer Robert Eggers has done just that with The Witch, a film which aims to drag Witches off of their broomsticks, throw them in a 17th Century folk-tale, roll them about in the mud, and send them back out with dirt underneath their nails, ready to creep back into the nightmares of unsuspecting viewers.
Set in 17th Century New England, a Puritan family led by patriarch William (Ralph Enison) is excommunicated from his village – along with his family comprising of wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy & Jonas (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson) – due to a crime of conceit. Setting up a farm within a large forest, it is not long until the family is plagued by a series of mysterious, possibly supernatural, occurrences all of which slowly, but surely, tear the family apart.
Eggers commitment to the period setting imbues the film with an edge that may make it difficult for some viewers to truly become engage with, but it undoubtedly marks the film as something truly unique. With most of the dialogue lifted directly from 17th Century transcripts, the film creates a similar atmosphere to that of last year’s Macbeth; an atmosphere that is at once intoxicating, uneasy, occasionally frustrating, but oddly spellbinding. The dialogue presents something of a challenge to the actors of the piece, as they must form speech-patterns from streams of dialogue taken from centuries old text. While all the main players provide strong work, it is the work of the younger members of the cast which does the most to sell the setting and its authenticity.
Eggers owes a great debt to his casting director, as the child actors within his cast are what truly sell the moments of terror that befall the banished family of Puritans. Be it through Thomasin’s growing instinct to rebel, Caleb’s sexual awakening or the Twins inclination to cause mischief, we believe them all to be squabbling siblings suddenly faced with accusations of Satanic worship. When the terror begins, it is often that we look to the children to know how to react, as well as look upon in fear as their respective innocent souls are made a target by either the ominous Witch in the woods, or the growing paranoia of their aggressively religious parents. Taylor-Joy, in particular, as Thomasin does tremendous work in a role which certainly puts her through the emotional wringer, while Scrimshaw as Caleb stands out in one particular sequence which truly turns your blood cold.
When it comes to the actual horror, most of what is at play here stems from a more psychological breed of fright, meaning that gore-hounds should perhaps look for their thrills elsewhere. Religion is a theme which drives most of the horror, leading to a great deal of threat driven by religious paranoia, as we experience a period in time where life was dictated by ones servitude to the Lord, with the threat of damnation being paramount among the concerns of everyday life.
The paranoia befitting of the time fuels much of the horror, but so does the titular Witch, as it is made abundantly clear to us from the start that the family are indeed being targeted by something within the woods. Eggers shows a great deal of skill in presenting an ominous atmosphere, as scenes of slow-burning tension are stretched out to unbearable lengths, to then suddenly be concluded with a cut to reveal a scene of a horrific nature. It is a very sharp and reserved way in which to stage scares, scares which punctuate scenes with startling images that are hard to forget. It is a patient yet disturbing style of horror which greatly recalls the work of William Friedkin.
While the film is often very capable of providing scenes which are unsettling, many of the more overtly supernatural scenes (namely involving the family goat Black Philip) tend to come across as a tad too ridiculous when delivered within an otherwise very authentic setting. This is particularly an issue with the final act of the film, which fully commits to more traditional expectations of Satanic worshipping and Witchcraft. It feels at odds with the carefully crafted authenticity given to re-creating a 17th Century setting, and leads to a pay-off which is predictable and not entirely satisfying. For the most part, however, The Witch stands as one of the most sophisticatedly crafted horror films of recent memory, one that is capable of sending shivers down your spine with images that have proven hard to forget.