If thou shouldst enter the woods this day, thou art assured a great surprise.”
The Witch is the debut feature of director Robert Eggers. His background is in production and costume design, and this experience serves him well in crafting a supremely terrifying experience. This the kind of debut to leave other directors, both old hands and new, green with envy. His wins for Best Direction at Sundance and Best Debut Feature at the London Film Festival are well-earned scalps. In 90 minutes, he wrings more tension out of The Witch than others could manage in a dozen features. He does so with minimal recourse to allegory or message; there are messages on the dangers of zealotry and female suppression to be extrapolated but, with its focus on the fear, The Witch is as pure a horror experience to have graced the big screen in years.
The Witch opens in the recently-colonised New England of the early 17th century. More specifically, it opens on a trial. Straight away, The Witch is invoking comparisons to The Crucible and other works set in this period, only to dispel them. Like William (Ralph Ineson) and his family, it is determined to separate itself from the pack. For reasons unclear William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children are banished from their pilgrim colony. With family and belongings in tow, they find a spot near a dark wood to start life anew. That’s the setup, done and dusted within five minutes. An ominous dread is set in motion, with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography allowing no primary colours in, save for dark ruby red when blood gets spilled. Attention to historical detail might not seem important in the moment, but in establishing time, place and dread, it is invaluable. Costumes and sets feel genuinely of their time, and their accuracy belies the project’s relatively small $1 million budget. Pricier horrors could only dream of this thing’s horrific atmos. This is an age before science and the necessity of empirical evidence could hope to debunk demons. In these woods, if God be not with thee, He be against thee.
The family settles down in their new corner, as the strings of Mark Korven’s score lay down the fear. The fear really comes from the unknown; the film may be called The Witch, but the sorrows that are about to befall this family feel less like the work of some vengeful she-creature than their complete abandonment by God and their fellow man. The family are alone in the wilderness. So, what is responsible? Glimpses are only offered in the early stages, but they are more than enough to display the pure evil that lurks in the woods. An early scene sees eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) playing peekaboo with her infant brother Samuel. One peek, and the child has disappeared into thin air. That’s a fright in and of itself, but then come images to suggest what has become of the child. Eggers’ imagery is stark and brilliantly horrible, to the point that the audience feels not just complicit, but dirty. What are we seeing? Goodness knows, but it’s fleshy and wrong in so many ways. There is an illicitness to The Witch that makes it deeply unsettling.
Samuel’s inexplicable disappearance is the beginning of a chain of events that besiege the family. Their corn crop fails, and the goats produce no milk, only blood. The family look around for causes, from minor sins of covetousness to the presence of a black goat in the herd, whom the younger children of the family claim is a demon named Black Philip. The brilliance of Eggers’ script allows threat to seep in from all possible angles. It suggests that the family’s fears and desires play a part in fuelling their downfall. Thomasin’s imminent womanhood has not escaped her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and there is an unnerving throughline in implied molestation and mortification. At the heart of all this darkness is a terrific cast. Ineson and Dickie brilliantly sell the slow degradation of once-godly minds, while Scrimshaw and Taylor-Joy are revelations in their commitment to the boldness of the material, and to ye olde English that is spoken throughout.
As is the way of such things, desperation forces various family members into the woods in search of food/lost siblings/answers. They will not come back untouched. A scene in which a family member inexplicably returns from the woods slowly morphs into an exorcism-cum-manic fit that will leave audiences gasping in disbelief. How Eggers captured these performances and these scenes is still puzzling, such is their intensity. The Witch is both exquisitely made and bracingly bold, with a laser-sharp focus on creating as creepy a film as possible. To paraphrase a great son of the times in which The Witch is set , it is a tale whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood.
The Witch is due for release in Irish cinemas in March 2016.