D/W: Robert Eggers. DP: Jarin Blaschke. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy/Ralph Ineson/Kate Dickie/Harvey Scrimshaw/Ellie Grainger/Jonas Dawson.
Much chatted about The Witch has finally hit theatres after its premiere back in 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival. Picked up by Universal for release here in the UK and by A24 in the US, the film has become the horror film of the year. Let’s get one thing straight first. As someone who avoids what is normally lumped into the genre label of horror, this film barely cuts it. Modern notions of horror lend me to think of slashers, which has created franchises like the Saw films. Rather The Witch is old fashioned suspense, nail bites, and the right dose of fright that makes it memorable.
The Witch is written and directed by newcomer Robert Eggers who hails from a costume and production design background. This is immediately clear from the color palette and textures that Eggers knows how to build mood. His film centers on a family of banished Puritans who are forced to build a new farm outside of the safety of their New World plantation settlement after the father’s, William (Ralph Ineson), religious teachings are deemed too much. Working his children in God’s name his eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) turns the family into turmoil when her baby brother is snatched on her watch. The mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), stricken with grief, begins a slow unraveling that pits religion against the supernatural.
Cloaked in a reliance and service to God, the family also speaks in an Old English tongue that evidently was taken or adapted from primary source texts prior to the famed Salem Witch Trials. Immediately this lends the film a storybook quality, but one of nightmares rather than fairy tales. The woods next to the farm are seen mostly in long shot or close up and deemed forbidden to the children. This is not the land of Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest rather its one that warps the senses and brings original sin into the light.
Young English actress Taylor-Joy is a captivating center for the film. At moments her modernness cracks to the surface, but overall she handles the Old English well. Dickie and Ineson, both graduates of the world of HBO’s Game of Thrones, are balanced well in the script. Neither faith seems too disturbing when placed in relief to the other and the family’s imminent survival.
The unilateral belief of original sin is the crux of The Witch. Thomasin, with her ‘appearances of womanhood,’ appears to somehow invite the witch of the woods into being or is certainly blamed for it. The congruence of womanhood/sin/Satan/temptation is at play, but the film roots in unnervingly realistic and ritualistic ways that allow the imagination to see more than the eye. Its why the original Halloween still works. For the first half an hour the audience experience a stalking. It is all in the pacing and The Witch creeps along without revealing much. Trust me, we would not like it if it did.