Director: Robert Eggers Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson Running Time: 92 minutes
Fear is not only a sudden emotion, a shriek let out at something jumping out at you. There’s also the fear that you carry with you, an omnipresent dread, a fear that can’t be outrun not because it’s a machete-wielding monster man that’s always following but because it’s already always with you. The main characters of The Witch are written pitch-perfectly by debuting writer/director Robert Eggers, thrown into a basic horror premise-there’s something spooky in the woods-to twist and turn under the pressure of an environment of fear. As Puritan Christians who see themselves as damned sinners, their baseline emotion is fear and The Witch is overwhelmingly thorough in making the audience feel its character’s fear, even when creepy witches aren’t cackling away.
Pious even by the standards of the 17th century New England plantations, the family of The Witch are cast out of their community because of patriarch William’s ‘prideful conceit’ and are forced to attempt to craft a life for themselves in the harsh American wilderness, a task for which they are ill-equipped to say the least. With their crops failing and a lack of supplies, things go south quickly and like many of the best horrors, The Witch knows that hell is other people, and looks inwardly at its characters, putting hairs on edge not though violent jump scares but through the unease of watching things fall apart. Mostly, supernatural forces are kept on the fringes as the family slowly but surely implodes and turns on each other. In fact, the actions of the witch are definitely terrifying to the characters, but more terrifying to them (and more provocative for their decisions in the story) is what her presence and actions signify to them: punishment for sins, eternal condemnation and the total inability of them to trust each other. Much like another indie-backlashed-witch-horror The Blair Witch Project, the film primarily looks to make its audience twist via anxiety-inducing decisions that flow naturally from its characters; a lie here, an outburst there and suddenly the family are on a path they can’t divert from. One might think that as a period piece, the conflicts of The Witch would be more difficult to buy into, but the secret of its success is an amazingly confident writer/director in Eggers.
Authenticity in front of the camera rather than showiness behind it is the key to Eggers’ approach. The film features natural lighting, sets built with period-appropriate tools and dialogue lifted directly from historical transcripts, all of which create an environment which is easy to become immersed in. The director’s fascination with his subject matter shines through, and obviously rubbed off on his actors, who manage to make ye olde talkie talk sound completely natural while maintaining a believable family dynamic. Ralph Ineson (Prime prat Finchy from The Office) puts in a great performance as William, a character whose existence as a bible-thumper would be easy to play one-note but is presented here as very layered, even sympathetic. But the children are the one’s most deserving of praise; avoiding any ‘demonic child’ stereotypes, acting their ages appropriately while still making the dialogue work.
The brief, nightmarish glimpses that are provided of the titular witch are presented so differently to the rest of the film-more frenetically edited, more brightly coloured, more contrastingly lit-that they simultaneously jar the senses while relieving the tension from the oppressive dread of the family’s day-to-day. That does mean that The Witch is a film that requires patience, and its longhaul approach may prove too frustrating to those who enjoy their scares to be big, loud and often, but audiences that can engage with the world Eggers has built will be rewarded. This is the kind of film that sticks with you and plays on the mind for days. With haunting imagery and thought provoking subject matter, The Witch is the latest in a line of horror films, alongside the likes of The Babadook and It Follows, that will prove impossible for horror fans to ignore, whether they love it or hate it.