The Witch. 2015. Directed & Written by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, & Wahab Chaudhry. Parts and Labor/RT Features/Rooks Nest Entertainment/Code Red Productions/Scythia Films/Maiden Voyage Pictures/Mott Street Pictures/Pulse Films/Special Projects.
Rated 14A. 93 minutes.
People will tell you that The Witch is overhyped, that critics are simply trying to sell Robert Eggers’ feature film debut as something more than it really is, or rather that anyone calling the movie a modern horror masterpiece is, to put it plainly, full of shit. I’ll put my two cents in to say Eggers has made an impressive, unapologetic horror about witchcraft, religion, repression, and above all paranoia. Eggers’ talent is enormous as a director, not to mention he brings with him the further talents of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who will no doubt see a spike in his being booked for future films), as well as a host of others who elevated this picture to its level of art. The quiet and subtle essence of the film is its strongest point. Around the edges of all the amazing cinematography and direction is a score from composer Mark Korven, which at times calls to mind classic horror films and at others brings its own feeling while keeping you on edge, engrossed in the moment and continually wondering what may come next. There are so many things to love about The Witch, from its look and entire atmosphere to the cast whose willingness to go all in on the characters makes each scene worth relishing.
The year is 1630. In New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) live as devout Christians, so much so that they do not fit in with the colony, and William’s refusal to conform with the church sends them out into the wild on their own with their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson), as well as the newborn infant Samuel.
After settling into their new life, one day Thomasin plays with the baby. But out of nowhere, Samuel goes missing. They search for aweek for the child, to no avail. While Katherine is distraught, blaming Thomasin for the disappearance, the children believe it is a witch hiding out in the forest, stealing and eating babies. William, steadfast in his religious ways, assures Katherine of their favour with God, that he is merely testing them. However, once Thomasin goes into the woods hunting with Caleb, and only she returns, the search is on once more. Only this time, even William begins to suspect his daughter may have been wed to the devil.
As religious paranoia and repression take hold, the family’s land becomes haunted. And the devil slowly but surely creeps his way into their hearts and minds.
I’ll admit, maybe Eggers isn’t for all horror fans. My expectations, though they were huge and still paid off, were also subverted, completely. There were many times I expected things to happen, or the plot to go a certain way, yet Eggers defied me at nearly every turn. There isn’t anything particularly revolutionary in terms of plot here, but the way in which it plays out is lots of terrifying, horrific fun. The dialogue may be a problem for some, as I’m sure not every horror fan will enjoy the Early Modern English dialogue. But that’s part of why I love the screenplay, we truly feel in the time and part of what makes everything so scary is that the story feels real. So all the different elements to the movie make each aspect seem true to life. Part of what sometimes angers me in period pieces is that the characters don’t speak properly for that period in time (we see much of this similarly in films that have people supposedly Russian or German speaking English only with the respective accents; another piss off we sometimes have to endure for Hollywood to make the stories they want). The Witch brushes that off by having the dialogue all in Early Modern English, which drives home, along with so much of the natural-looking cinematography, the authenticity. Furthermore, I love the way Eggers keeps us guessing. Without revealing too much of any actual plot detail, other than the obvious, what intrigued me most is that we’re never quite sure whether or not what we see is reality, if everything in each scene is truly taking place. At least not until the plot develops more and certain events (see: Caleb and the apples) force us to realize exactly what is happening. Again, not an overly fresh idea as a whole, but certainly Eggers takes it and puts his spin on it, absolutely providing us with a fresh take on an old tale. And the fact there was lots of research put into the writing in terms of looking at actual records (et cetera) from the period that still remain, folktales and other bits of writing as well, only makes the movie more enjoyable for its attempts at getting things right.
The dark beauty of the film is very much a result of Eggers’ direction, Jarin Blaschke on duty as cinematographer, and Mark Korven creating a tense, moody score to compliment their work. Even shots of the forest itself seem ominous, as it stands tall and shadowy in the midst of day, the stands of trees casting a deep sorrow within the woods. Putting Korven’s score on top, Eggers shows us ominous, foreboding frames of the vast wilderness, which itself almost becomes as terrifying as the witch out there. The natural lighting of the interior scenes, inside the family’s small barn or its main house, casts everything in long shadows, flickering on the walls and on the faces of the characters; again, this technique amplifies the authentic feeling of the entire film. The rich texture of the movie’s look makes things feel perfect, as if you’re right there in the trees watching them go by, right next to William as he chops wood, or in the field with the children playing.
Best of all, though, are the brief and unsettling scenes where we see the witch herself. Barely do we ever get a straight look at her, but still, she is a devilish presence. Very early on we’re treated to a scene where she mashes up what we’re to believe is a baby, smearing its blood all over her body, all over a large thin tree, and every last bit of this is covered in shadow, so that there’s barely much you can see. What you do see is disturbing. It sets the tone for everything to come. Another aspect of the film I dig, that Eggers gets the macabre atmosphere going almost from the start, within very little time. So much so there is rarely a moment without tension, not many moments where you’ll feel able to breathe a sigh of relief. Just another reason this film is a modern work of horror art.
Aside from the technical aspects, The Witch is dominated by powerful acting. Each of the actors brings their role to life, even the young kids who add their own authenticity to the scenes. Particularly, both Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy are magic here, as they are both faithful, religious people in their own rights, but who end up walking down quite different paths. Taylor-Joy does spectacular work with the character of Thomasin, which isn’t easy, and especially once the finale arrives I found myself hooked on her eyes; watching just her face in those last few minutes will chill any warm heart. Ineson is perfection as William, a man trying to keep his faith and family together as one, and a father confronted with the ultimate evil at his doorstep, invading his home; his delivery of lines will keep you glued, even if Early Modern English troubles you, as he can reel you in with just a look, a motion. Two excellent performances heading an already solid cast.
5 stars go to Robert Eggers and . Everyone in the theatre with me today seemed transfixed, whether they liked it or not. Certainly this isn’t a film for everyone, and those looking for a modern horror with all the modern cliches will be disappointed. Likewise, don’t go in expecting the same thing as It Follows or The Babadook, two other notable modern horror movies that did well recently. The Witch is entirely its own brand, despite taking on a timeworn sub-genre in witchcraft. This creeped me out royally at many points and I’m liable to see this again someday soon, as the atmosphere and the entire production itself really hit the spot, I’d love to experience it another time around. Until it hits Blu ray; then I’ll watch it to death, whether I die or the disc dies first remains to be seen.