“A New England Folktale.”
Seeking absolution and blessings from their lord, a family of banished evangelical colonials battle the wilderness, femininity and a demonic goat named Black Philip in Robert Egger’s deeply unsettling and outstanding horror debut The Witch.
This is a film you experience rather than watch, as its mesmeric potency is simply impossible to ignore. As each second passes, the imagery and sounds slowly burrow their way under your skin; infecting and festering away at your nerves. Much like John Carpenter’s The Thing, by confining this cursed family to the edge of a forbidding wood, the mounting tension and paranoia has no where else to go, but burst through the fourth wall and latch itself onto the audience.
As an exercise in slow-burning tension, fans of jump scares, graphic violence or gore will be left feeling discontented. But for the more patient horror aficionados, The Witch joins the ranks as one of the best modern day horror films alongside recent masterful entries, The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2015).
Exiled from their village for blasphemous conduct, the family of six must farm these barren lands alone in order to stay alive and atone for their sins. But the woods are lovely, dark and deep and the devil has promises to keep.
Seeking religious freedom, a series of strange happenings rapidly devolve the family unit into nothing more than vessels of fear, madness and hysteria. Quick to turn violently on one another, they spit religious fanaticism to oust the evil that has polluted them.
Part of what helps The Witch feel so deeply chilling is the lengths Eggers and his team have gone to, to ensure historical accuracy in their depiction of religious zealotry and Puritan life during the 1630’s. Eggers reportedly worked for years with historians to gather enough primary sources to ensure that everything from the dialogue, costumes, fabrics, wood work, fables and belief systems were as authentic to the time period as possible. Part of the dialogue was directly lifted from actual witch trial testimonials. Eggers’ previous work as a production designer undoubtedly helped with successfully achieving this authentication process.
All of this painstaking attention to detail, along with the inclusion of classic fairy-tale imagery of witchery – red capes and apples – make for a unique beast of excruciating dread, whose slow build is finally paid off in devastating/nightmarish fashion.
Eggers, in only a single film, demonstrates a mastery of capturing foreboding and disturbing imagery that elicit pure dread and fear. If you accept the spiritual world, such as these people do, everything you hear and see can take on a threatening/ominous form. Trees, shadows, rabbits, goats and twin siblings are all as menacing and brooding as any monster. Lit almost entirely by natural lighting, Eggers desaturated landscapes are devoid of any sign of colour or life. Ashen browns, greys and whites are all that remain, with the exception of crimson, when it’s time for blood.
The film’s sound design and Mark Korven’s hellish score – which assumably was inspired by Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood – help amplify the mounting tension. The sounds of tortured choir singers and demonic cellos is as evocative as it is haunting.
While the technical wizardry deserves applause, a horror film can only be as good as the performers whose job it is to believably sell the terror. The Witch features a small, but superb ensemble cast, but it is Anya Taylor-Joy who ascends from unknown ballet dancer to future star with her committed and relentless performance. When we first meet her character of Thomasin, we’re quick to learn that she’s only now becoming aware of her body and her sexuality. Her own father and brother battle their own lustful thoughts and side glances towards her, while her mother (competitively) scorns her for the blossoming woman she has become. This shaming and fear of femininity and sexuality has long been a staple of films of this ilk and Eggers has an interesting way of empowering Thomasin by the film’s end.
The Witch effectively transports audiences to a bygone era, full of superstition and theological paranoia, but its portrait feels both past and terrifyingly present.
The mark of a truly influential horror film isn’t how it made you jump and react inside the cinema, but the physical and psychological response you have once you walk outside the theatre and attempt to go home. This film stays with you.