Since it premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Witch has been discussed with lavish praise that’s rare for a horror film. Thankfully, everything that has been said about the movie is richly deserved. Robert Eggers’ intimidatingly impressive debut as writer/director isn’t just one of the most viscerally disturbing genre efforts to emerge in many years, it’s also one of the most complex and intelligent. A meditation on the age of the Salem Witch Trials that ingeniously presents the superstitions behind the hysteria as possibly being real,
Billed as a “New England Folk Tale”, the film follows a family so committed to their strict beliefs that they actually leave a 17th century pilgrim community for not being religious enough (say what?!). The exhausted father (Ralph Ineson) takes his family to an isolated cabin by a rotted out wood, where the infant child of the clan is quickly kidnapped by an unsettling old lady and used in a blood sacrifice. From there, tensions run high within the family before the supernatural threat truly takes over. The mother (Kate Dickie) begins breaking down and questioning her family immediately. The eldest son (Harvey Scrimshaw) enters puberty with a vengeance and begins inadvertently ogling his older sister. The youngest twins (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) seem to speak in a language of their own and spend a little too much time with the family goat. Meanwhile the eldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) remains the sanest of the lot, which is likely why everyone else begins to wonder if she’s guilty of witchcraft.
Director Robert Eggers wastes little time before putting his audience through the ringer. He establishes the supernatural threat almost instantly with a vicious sacrifice scene that makes bloody promises of things to come. From there he wisely holds back on the demonic shenanigans for a while. Instead, his focus turns to the family and how their fractured bonds and religious paranoia tear them apart as quickly as any bloodthirsty witch might. The film deals openly with the distrust, misogyny, and hysteria that led to the tragic Witch Trials. The florid nature of their period-specific dialogue disguises the fear and hate beneath their religiously tainted motives. At the centre, Anya Taylor-Joy gives a remarkable performance as a young woman with the only hint of sanity within her shattered family. Everyone else in the cast is remarkable as well (especially the goat), but Taylor-Joy’s painful journey is the most humanly tragic, grounding the film in the genuine human tragedy of the era.
Even without any of the overt demonic horrors that Eggers trots out, The Witch would be a gruelling and impressive drama. The claustrophobic family meltdown at the core is as thrilling and rich as any of the overt scares that pepper the narrative. The attention to period detail is remarkable and was clearly meticulously researched by Eggers and every member of his incredible production team. Yet, it’s the fact that the filmmaker also dabbles in the genuine folklore and fears of the era that elevates the film to another level. The carefully composed frames and disturbingly dissonant score might hint at the horrors to come throughout, but they arrive with a vicious force and unsettling verisimilitude that would be impossible to predict. There are some big scares and effects to be sure, yet the filmmaker delivers them in such a devilishly clever way that it would be entirely possible to read the film as the collective hallucination of a broken family. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether the film is a subjective meltdown into demonic terror from a dazed protagonist or proof that the horrific New England witch hunts were justified by a larger sense of evil (which in and of itself is an absolutely nightmarish thought).
As horrifying and rewarding as The Witch might be for genre lovers and snobs, it should be noted that the film demands careful attention. Though Eggers displays the masterful ability to manipulate audience emotions that all horror directors need, he’s also unwilling to spoon feed his audience. The period specific dialogue can be difficult to crack (though the actors, young and old, manage to imbue it with emotional truth no matter how florid the words) and the ambiguous nature of the supernatural threat with fascinate and frustrate viewers in equal measure. However, given how tiresomely predictable horror movies have become in recent years, a horror yarn as complex as The Witch is a welcomed change of pace. It’ll provide the visceral thrills the horror fans need as well as the thematic depth that attracts viewers who aren’t drawn to every genre effort that promises shivers and blood. That’s the sort of viewing experience that tends to lead to a genre classic. It already feels like The Witch has become one before release. Believe the hype. The Witch is fantastic, and given that it’s only the first film by writer/director Robert Eggers, it just might be the calling card of the next major voice to arrive in the genre.