Please note: this review was originally published in October during our London Film Festival 2015 coverage.
The Witch is a startlingly unique horror film from first time director Robert Eggers, and perhaps more than any other film, has you stepping out from the dark thinking “thank goodness I live in the modern world”.
We often romanticise a desire to go back to simpler times, to reconnect with nature, to cut ourselves off from the conveniences and indeed temptations of the modern world… But imagine you’re a teenage girl living in 1630 and your family has just made the long journey across the Atlantic to settle in New England.
Then within months of settling, your god-fearing father has managed to get your entire family banished from the rest of the puritan flock for being TOO puritanical. Now you’re forced to live out your days in the unpredictable wilderness with your severe mother, two equally terrifying and irritating twin siblings, another brother who’s becoming uncomfortably aware of your burgeoning pubescence and your aforementioned father who also happens to be the guy who does the voiceover from Countryside 999.
Yeah life is shit, and it would be significantly less shit if you’re baby brother hadn’t been snatched before your eyes and dragged off into the woods by an elderly nude hag to be pestled into body lotion. Awful shit. Right now, if you could give the concepts of popular atheism and affordable airfares a hug you would.
The Witch (stylised as The VVitch if you’re the sort of pretentious fuck like me who writes Se7en instead of Seven) is short on hope, heavy on dread, and with a lean running time and minimal plotting does an awful lot to cause you discomfort.
The colours are all muted, washed out greys. The forest that surrounds the family’s half-built enclave is given a similar menace and alien unknowingness as the endless expanse of an ocean or the vastness of space. The lighting is basically whatever was available at the time. The dialogue, mostly taken from actual documents of the era, is dense with period-realistic detail. It’s all “thou” and “thine” and “speak if this be pretence!” Its arcane nature further adding to your unease.
Lesser actors would struggle to deliver lines like “what went we out in this wilderness to find?’ convincingly, but The Witch’s greatest strength is in its incredible and entirely committed ensemble cast. Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson bring huge amounts of weight to their roles as consistently beleaguered parents William and Katherine, but it’s the children who offer the bravest performances. Anya Taylor-Joy treads a delicate balance between innocence and ambiguity as Thomasin, who is treated the most unfairly by the film’s events, but still manages to keep her more progressive feelings bubbling under the surface. Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb provides the most spine-chilling and transformative moment of the film, as his body is given over to the witch and he mimics a subtly erotic encounter with some unknown being. It’s a gloriously twisted scene.
The Witch is undoubtedly gripping, often chilling and never less than captivating. It does however think it’s much scarier than it really is. The soundtrack does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to instilling dread in its audience, the spectral harmonics of the wood providing a similar hauntological dissonance (yeah that’s right) to that of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. But that’s the trouble, we’ve heard it all before and many of The Witch’s scarier moments don’t quite have the pay-off that perhaps you were fearing. It’s a shame because everything else in the movie is designed so well to unnerve and displace you.
That being said, The Witch is a phenomenal achievement, and much like that other scary witch in a wood movie, the ultimate effect is reinforcing the idea that there are things in nature that are cruel and pitiless which mankind shouldn’t mess with. And that you probably shouldn’t ever go camping again. 4/5