THE WITCH (2015)
Directed by Robert Eggers
When you hear the word witch your first mental image is likely a green skinned hag, cackling on a broomstick, wearing a hat as pointy as her oversized and boil-riddled nose: hardly the stuff of nightmares. Although recent years have seen a number of big genre names, from Rob Zombie and James Wan to television’s American Horror Story, attempting to reverse this stigma. Yet none have come close to Robert Eggers’ debut chiller in legitimising the Wiccan way of life as a ripe source of terror. This trepid folk-tale takes us back 1630, decades before the Salem trials saw religious hysteria overtake reason, and asks us to consider what if there really was a source of evil lurking within the jagged trees.
The New England countryside may be cold and grey, but doesn’t mean it can’t also be hellish. So learns true believer William (Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Dickie), two puritans excommunicated from the safety of a religious settlement due to the former’s pride. In exile they establish a sustainable farm by the woods: the sort of picturesque haven where they can live off the land and raise their kids properly, under the supposedly ever-watchful eye of their lord and saviour. Joining them, in this would-be utopia, are their maturing daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), young son Caleb (Scrimshaw), pint sized twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) and months old infant Samuel. And for the first act we spend a surprisingly long time watching them struggle with the landscape, in a grim subversion of Little House on the Prairie. “We will conquer this wilderness” promises their patriarch. Yet it’s not long before hard rural domesticity begets familial tragedy. To make matters worse, shortly after the ordeal their hunting trips fail to yield meat, their crops die, the cow produces blood and the hen births rotten fetuses in the place of fine yolks. But these freak occurrences are made to seem trivial when their young talk in tongues and suspicions fall on their eldest as a witch.
Curiously Thomasin’s status as an innocent isn’t contested by the narrative, with the existence of a genuine occultist (Garnett) confirmed very early on by an unnerving ritual. Though this may seem a wasted opportunity, given the family’s close quarters, it actually works much better than a standard ‘is she/ isn’t she’ trope could. The cause of tension isn’t whether she’s a witch or not. Rather it’s when her family will inevitably become convinced she is and what they’ll do about it. This doomed dynamic gives a real feeling of apprehension from the outset, as paranoia sets in and the inevitable accusations surface. Accordingly The Witch is an exercise in sustained dread. The escalation is expertly handled, with Eggers building to his stunning finale from the opening moments and knows just when to introduce what elements. In the hands of a lesser talent some of the more fantastical elements could have descended into goofy farce, with a sinister goat named Black Phil being the most obvious. But here each is handled with the care and precision they need to be part of a wider picture.
Which brings me on to the incredible visuals. The setting is as dramatic as they come, with the cinematography perfectly captures every dusk, dawn and moment in between. The rigid buildings and handmade clothes invoke the director’s former role in the props department, with each shot boasting a keen eye for detail. Against the sinister strings and choral voices, that make the soundtrack, it makes for a thick atmosphere. Furthermore, save for a couple of accent slips from the youngsters, the actors make the archaic dialogue sound fresh. Ineson, Dickie and Taylor-Joy brilliantly embody their characters’ conflicts and give real emotional stakes to their attempts to find reason in their suffering. Are they being tested by God for William’s arrogance? Or are they cursed by The Devil? Answers are never forthcoming, but this doesn’t matter since cast members are at their best when trying to find them.
Curbing the story in favour of thematic cohesion means the film will not be for everyone. Indeed, I can see many an impatient punter giving up and thinking it a bore. Yet for those that like to immerse themselves in a layered piece it’ a hugely rewarding in its joint appreciation of horror and human frailty. Importantly The Witch also carries the distinction of being the first classic of 2016. As per last February’s release, It Follows, it’s obviously premature to label it a contender for scary movie of the year. Yet if this doesn’t make people’s top fives in December it’ll only be because of how damn good everything else is.