Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Directed by Robert Eggers
One of the biggest treats at this year’s Fantastic Fest came in the form of the much-anticipated horror film The Witch, a creeping nightmare of a debut from explosive talent Robert Eggers that is currently set for wide release on February 26, 2016 in the United States. When the terrifying trailer premiered at the end of the summer, web chatter began to predict that the Sundance hit would be the next big horror film of substance. Although I am not a horror fan to arbitrarily throw out hype — or buy into it — I still have absolutely no qualms in proclaiming that The Witch is indeed a masterfully made, superbly performed, and refreshingly executed horror film. Robert Eggers knocks this debut out of the park, crafting a tale that feels immediately classic, and all at once intelligent and disturbing.
The story opens in 17th century New England with a Puritan family of seven standing judgment in court while father William (Ineson) unapologetically asserts that his own devout set of Christian beliefs far exceeds those held by the rest of his community. With his pride provoking the ire of the court, the family is banished from the colony, and William, his wife Katherine (Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger, respectively), and infant Sam are forced to make a desolate plot of farmland their home instead. Even rumors that an evil witch resides in the ominous woods on the outskirts of the land will not shake William’s resolve.
Following this, we witness Thomasin playing an innocent game of peek-a-boo with baby Sam. Within moments, however, Sam goes missing and a frantic Thomasin is helpless, only left to catch a glance of a dark figure retreating into the thicket beyond the farm. Ultimately, the distraught family concludes that Sam has been carried off by a wolf. However, as days pass it becomes clear that there may be a much more wicked force at work. Crops begin dying, the animals behave strangely, and Jonas and Mercy start exhibiting very creepy behavior — most notably making claims that the “witch of the woods” has taken Sam and even implementing Thomasin, asserting that she has been cavorting with Satan. Although these comments are seemingly made in jest (at least at first), the air of suspicion grows heavy, particularly with icy mother Katherine, and Thomasin seems unable to escape blame as things get worse. When Caleb disappears into the woods as well after being accompanied by Thomasin, he returns to the farm in a seemingly bewitched state some time later. Let’s just say that from there, all hell really breaks loose.
While subversive horror it is, The Witch is also at its core a tragic story of a family crumbling under the weight of loss and paranoia. From the moment William and his family set foot on the farm, the film establishes a cold environment that is charged with palpable fear. While it of course elicits shudders as we do catch glimpses of the haggard witch (and yes, she does exist!), the film exceptionally succeeds in capturing the greater fear of the unknown that permeates the family dynamic. Displaced not just from their colony, but also from their homeland in the new world, we feel for these people who are completely out of their element, namely Katherine, who is clinging to her last shred of faith in the face of overwhelming loss. Everything in this foreign land feels like a potential threat, and as Katherine slowly loses herself with each tragedy, Dickie shines even more in her pitiable desperation as she spiritually and emotionally battles the perceived curse on her family.
Spiritual warfare appropriately plays a great role in The Witch. It is clear that the religiously frenzied William has done quite a number on his wife and children, all who aggressively repeat prayers when there is any indication that perhaps they have done wrong. The notion of sin is absolutely unacceptable on the farm and it must be snuffed out at any cost… or at least very well suppressed. We see the children particularly struggle with the tireless battles against their own inherently sinful bodies and minds; Caleb’s shamefully curious glances at his blossoming sister and Thomasin’s own admission of doubt in her faith are just the tip of the iceberg. At the peak of the madness, all of the family members are resolved to do anything they can to stay out of the fiery depths, including throwing around accusations of betrayal and witchery when things start getting more inexplicably threatening. At a point, you have to wonder why Satan would need a witch to cause damage with family like this.
As expected though, the witch actually does bring about harm, although to go into exact detail on how everything unfolds would be doing a huge disservice to the viewing experience. The last act of this film is a superb exercise in mounting terror and revelation, solidifying Anya Taylor-Joy particularly as a commanding young actress. In the final ten minutes alone, the film elevates to the ranks of Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now as one of the most satisfyingly perfect horror finales to date. For a moment, I felt the need to question my own moral standing as I found myself smiling in devilish enjoyment, a testament to Eggers as not just a technical talent, but a fiery genre force to be reckoned with.
Speaking of the first-time director, it’s hard not to gush: The Witch is a gorgeously dreary picture with ambition that succeeds on all counts. Eggers’ cinematic and narrative attention to the minute is remarkable, from the detailed costuming to the authentic syntax of the time period, which was reportedly pulled directly from 17th century records and — a huge relief — never becomes frustrating or silly. To pull off this level of authenticity in such a fantastical story (the film is touted as “A New-England Folktale”) is a commendable feat for a first-time director.
When The Witch descends upon audiences next February, it will no doubt be critically lauded even further, and deservedly so. As an advanced notice though, modern audiences expecting a non-stop thrill ride will definitely need to recalibrate their expectations. The film is not one that inspires raucous midnight viewings, nor does it need to be. Instead, it will surely find a welcome place next to the likes of The Babadook, It Follows, recent Austrian release Goodnight Mommy, and another forthcoming festival favorite we rather enjoyed. Like these films, The Witch succeeds most as it bores into your psyche for days after, and it stands simply as one of the most gripping slow burn films to come out in a while — with a payoff. Those who stick through it will undoubtedly be ablaze by the wicked final frame.