The Witch, 2015.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie.
A family of settlers is slowly torn apart by supernatural forces in 1630s New England.
‘The scariest film of all time / the year / in decades’ is a phrase that appears on the posters of every single horror film. So much so, that it’s starting to sour the experience of the films themselves. Setting up unrealistic expectations for an audience means that they’ll hate the film from the off if they don’t walk out of the cinema without having feverish nightmares for months on end.
So let’s get this out-of-the-way first. The Witch is NOT the scariest film of the year and it’s definitely not the scariest film of ALL TIME. It is, however, a great piece of genre filmmaking that looks beautiful and touches upon themes and ideas that haven’t been done this well in a long time.
Following a Puritan family looking for a new home after being ‘banish-ed’ from their community, the film is unnerving even before any talk of witches or devils. In the vein of recent horror films like The Babadook or It Follows, it’s the overwhelming sense of dread that scares us, rather than cheap jump scares or gore.
Not that it wastes any time within its lean 90 minutes, with the first sign of trouble appearing just minutes after it starts, when little baby Sam suddenly disappears while playing with eldest daughter Thomasin. After a few days, the search is called off, the family accepting that Sam was dragged off by a wolf. But we know what happened to him…
Her unruly twin siblings, Mercy and Jonas, sometimes far too excitable, considering there’s nothing to play with on said farm but a few goats, tease Thomasin about Sam, saying that a witch took him. Without thinking, she scares the children by declaring that she is the witch who took Sam, hoping that’ll be the end of it. And what starts as joking and whispering turns into something a lot more sinister.
Director Robert Eggers has made a confident feature debut with The Witch, also writing the script, using actual records from the time for some dialogue. Sometimes that works and sometimes you can’t really hear or figure out what’s being said, but it still works.
But every scene does seem to have a purpose to the story, every single one suggesting an ominous threat just outside of the frame, whether the characters are sat around eating a meal or chasing goats up and down the farm.
The same can be said for the cast, made up of ‘that guy’ actors, who you believe actually live on a small settlement in New England. As William, Ralph Ineson gets some choice lines of dialogue, delivered with such power that even when he suggests his infant children had an ‘unholy bond’ with a goat, you daren’t laugh. But it’s Anya Taylor-Joy that’s the real standout, whose burgeoning womanhood and increasing doubt about her religion make her just that bit more grounded than the rest of her family.
But, even though it’s nice to look at and all the actors seem born for their parts, sometimes The Witch is intense to a fault.
It’s certainly not a film interested in making you feel comfortable at any point, but when you’ve been sat staring at a blank landscape for what seems like a lifetime as a shrill orchestral score gets louder and louder…we get it, move on.
A victim of its own hype, The Witch might not burn disturbing images into your brain that you’ll carry for the rest of your life, despite what some other reviews have said. But it’s still a great, unsettling horror film that’s one of the most impressive and confident directorial debuts in a long time, making it well worth a watch once the dust has settled.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★