The Witch, 2015.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson.
In 1630s New England, a family of puritan settlers confront evil forces besieging their new isolated home.
Every culture is steeped in folklore and folk tale. The best of these old stories tinged with darkness and horror, both as a means to entertain and to scare the listeners into obeying their lessons about life. Folklore and cinema have been tied together since the medium was born, the visual form allowing these tales to come to life in fresh new ways. This brings me to today’s entry; Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a fascinating work that manages to capture the spirit of a dark folk tale in a way that very few films have before.
The visual style is fascinating and brilliant at creating a creepy experience. The daytime scenes, shot entirely using natural light, are weighted down by this unshakeable feeling that something is watching our characters as they potter around their farm, trying to eke out a living. The drab, grey overcast weather conditions are made all the more sinister by the sprawling, almost unending woods surrounding the farm. The night-time scenes, which are mostly indoors, are perhaps even more ominous as the characters have no one but each other to contend with. A dinner scene in which accusations of lying flow freely is already unpleasant, but it’s made all the more unbearable when shot entirely by candlelight. The flickering flames casting fearsome shadows upon the faces of the cast.
The production design is exemplary in its attention to detail. The isolated wooden house in which the family live is a wonderfully constructed set that seems to have been plucked straight from the 17th century. Its cramped confines in which the characters have little to no privacy creating an unpleasant and claustrophobic atmosphere, the occupants unable to escape each other’s problems and accusations. Praise must also be given to costume designer Linda Muir for her work, with her meticulously crafted garments being damn near-perfect recreations of the period’s clothing. Even if the film isn’t to everyone’s tastes, one can’t deny that this is anything but a towering success in the technical department.
The story is straightforward as it follows a devout puritan family of English settlers attempting to build a new life in America, only to fall prey to seemingly supernatural forces. However, while it appears simple on the surface, the story is thematically rich and complex. Examining themes of religious devotion, familial breakdowns, sexuality and superstition, amongst many others. It’s a fascinating and slow-burning story that draws you in with a seemingly straightforward narrative that you can enjoy for its creepy ambience while still leaving you enough to meat so you can enjoy a pretentious chin stroke while ruminating on its themes.
Much of the horror is subtle and based around the suffocating atmosphere. Most of the horrific imagery kept just out of frame or not shown to us at all, with many scenes cut together almost like a mini-movie trailer, with lots of sudden cuts to black mid-action. What are entirely missing are jump scares, with the film opting for a quieter approach in which the horror slowly builds throughout the runtime before culminating in a brief display of bloody violence at the climax. While some might not care for this approach, I loved it and appreciated the films attempts to break from the mould and tell a horror film that harkens back to the classic folk tales that would have terrified our ancestors centuries ago. Although there are a few moments that I liked for perhaps the wrong reason, most of them concerning the various attempts to make particular animals scary. Every time I saw an ominous close-up of a hare with the sinister music blaring, I couldn’t help but have Monty Python flashbacks. All that was missing was John Cleese shouting: ‘It IS the Rabbit!’
The performances from the cast are terrific, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a young woman tormented by guilt and forced to contend with her increasingly hostile and distrustful family. Taylor-Joy makes for a sympathetic protagonist as she attempts to make up for past failings but constantly finds herself rejected, playing this anguish wonderfully with an understated quality. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie also give terrific performances as William and Katherine, the parents whose religious devotion leaves them struggling to move past their heartbreak. Ineson makes for a formidable presence with his low rumbling voice giving his words a certain gravitas to them. Dickie’s performance is especially poignant, with a moving scene in which she breaks down and professes her desire to ‘go home’ standing out as a highlight. The supporting cast of Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are great also, with Scrimshaw in particular (without spoiling too much) relishing his moment as his character, Caleb, experiences a moment of religious euphoria. The performances are already superb, but they are made all the more impressive when you consider that the actors perform all their dialogue in Early Modern English (for example, saying things ‘thou art’ and ‘thy mother’), managing to make this unusual and antiquated form of speech sound natural again.
The musical score is perhaps my favourite aspect of the film, with composer Mark Korven creating a terrifying minimalist score whose strings pierce the silence like a knife digging into our ears. The choral arrangements are also brilliant, the eerie voices and the stabbing string arrangements combining into a terrifying mixture that brings to mind the music of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Witch is not a film for everyone. Its slow, subtle approach, thematically heavy story and generally low-key horror are bound to alienate those looking for a straight-up scare-fest. However, intelligent direction, a novel visual style, fantastic production, costume design and music and the excellent performances from the cast allow The Witch to leave its mark as an innovative and downright weird experience that I just couldn’t turn away from.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★