New England, 1630: a family consisting of a father, mother, and four children are exiled from their Puritan settlement for what are called “prideful conceits.” The father, William (Ralph Ineson), contends that it is they who are the true followers of God.
Pushed out of one remote outpost in the New World into an even more remote waste, they settle, after some time, on the edge of a dark forest. Eventually, another baby is born, Samuel, who, while being watched over one day by the oldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), disappears during an innocent game of peek-a-boo. The camera shows – or seems to show – an elderly female stealing away with the child. The family begins to unravel.
Robin Wood once stated that, in a horror film, “normality is threatened by the monster.” If this reliable formula holds true, then Robert Eggers’s THE WITCH presents a satisfying complication: more slow-burner or folk tale (the film is, in fact, subtitled “A New-England Folktale”) than boogeyman body-count or spine-tingler. Normality is definitely threatened but it is hard to say by whom or even by what.
In spite of its title, the monster here is a remarkably disembodied force. While there definitely appears to be a malevolent being crouching in wait in the woods, at the edge of reason, much of the horror here is committed by one family member against another. For example, to make ends meet, William surreptitiously sells his wife Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) treasured silver cup in order to buy hunting supplies. Though he eventually owns up to the transgression, it is too late to spare Thomasin who has already been withering under the implications of guilt due to Samuel’s disappearance, setting the forces of familial disintegration firmly into motion.
Like Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one senses that these regular folk are perched – dangling – over the flames. In an existence built upon faith, the implication seems to be that, once the infection of doubt seeps in, everything civilized goes down like a house of cards. Worse, in a world built upon repression, woe unto those who throw the gates wide open….
Horror is a genre which makes its capital through the building of discordancy and unease on the peripheries of perception: most often through visuals but effectively, as well, through sound (see, for example, THE SHINING or the recent IT FOLLOWS). THE WITCH succeeds in these respects in unexpected ways. While its stark beauty – its unburnished wilderness and murky interiors shot through with shafts of natural sunlight or threatening to swallow up the meager flicker of a candle, its achingly spare score and sound effects – invites the viewer to look, the sense of imminent menace dares the viewer to continue that very act of looking. After all, the truest and most intuitive laws of horror films are that the viewer is only as safe as the present moment allows and that the act of looking, itself, is infused with danger. At its best, THE WITCH attracts as it repels: the camera’s steady, unwavering gaze, classically-framed tableaux, and hauntingly minimal score pulling the viewer in opposite directions, making for a queasily satisfying experience.
His debut feature, Eggers writes and directs this with surprising assurance and with a rigorous naturalism rare in the genre, suggesting more of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING or Malick’s THE NEW WORLD than THE EXORCIST or THE OMEN. Eggers is aided by an excellent cast, headed by Ineson, Dickie, and the radiant Taylor-Joy, but also including Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays brother Caleb with wide-eyed earnestness, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as a creepy pair of twins, and an equally unsettling goat named Black Phillip in the definition of a scene-stealing animal role (hint: he has some of the better lines in the movie). Great care is taken across the board with costumes (Eggers was a former costume designer, himself), production design, and accurate recreation of New England accents of the time. Expressionistic flourishes appear just frequently enough to make the viewer squirm, offering a superbly understated creep-out factor.
A bit like later Kubrick or Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, THE WITCH is calibrated like a tonal pitch which builds in intensity to an inexorable conclusion, the hands of fate pushing events forward. This strangely-wrought amalgamation of art film and horror movie may fail to please either extreme, yet is perfectly appropriate to our strange times.