Robert Eggers’ skillfully crafted début horror film caused a stir at its première at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Eggers won the Best Directing award. After being slated for a surprisingly wide U.S release, there was a wave of anticipation, and in-turn lots of mixed reactions (a C- Cinemascore for example). A small selection of Australian audiences – it is releasing on one screen in Melbourne and Sydney only – will get the chance to settle their expectations in the cinema. Considering the sort of horror film it is – a slow-build, lathered thick in atmosphere and even thicker New England accents – it is rather puzzling to hear so much buzz. The marketing has been excellent. Horror buffs hoping for the splattering of gore offered by the Saw films or the jump scare-per-minute pace of The Conjuring will likely find themselves squirming in restlessness, but this film offers very real terror by building a convincing context for a predatory menace and takes the time to genuinely earn your fear.
The Witch, I believe, is drawn verbatim from mid 17th Century folklore, and with its incredible attention to period detail and chilling location offers a terrifying exploration of the manifestation of humanity’s darkest fears, and how insular, isolated destruction and spiritual invasion seep together in indiscernible ways. Panic and despair cripples an excommunicated family – banished from a New England Puritan Christian plantation and forced to seek out a new life with just a cartload of possessions – when their crops fail and their youngest child mysteriously disappears.
William (Ralph Ineson), and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) have five children; luminous teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of womanhood, the impressionable Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), mischievous twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and baby Samuel. During a game of peek-a-boo Samuel is snatched from Thomasin’s care; a shadowy figure spied entering the nearby woods. Devastated and soon to be facing starvation, William is forced to make desperate decisions. But, further strange encounters; including the twins’ insistence that the family goat, Black Phillip, speaks to them and claims that Thomasin is responsible for their ill-fortune, raise the hysteria, test the clan’s faith and loyalty to one another and arouses suspicion of witchcraft.
What is immediately striking and the film’s defining trait is the confidence in the aesthetic. Relying on natural lighting, the compositions are exquisite, and every frame features shadowy corners to challenge us. The woods feel damp, sticky, and hallucinatory, while the hut seems to be forever in their shadow. Their evenings are illuminated only by the glow of candles and lanterns, but the days are shrouded in a gloomy grey too. The unnerving, nightmarish sound design and punctuating musical score is also a highlight, working perfectly in sync with the visuals and effectively amplifying the already chest-tightening mood.
What Eggers’ manages to achieve brilliantly is blurring the line between the supernatural and the human and the emotional. This family – considering the upsetting situation they find themselves in – were doomed to combust from within whether there was a witch at work or not. We see several of the family members slip from their strict government, and give in to temptations. Communication is particularly affected. William eventually admits to selling a silver cup for hunting gear, but allows Katherine to believe it was stolen by Thomasin as part of her witchery. Caleb steals glances at Thomasin’s chest, and she, at an age where she is sexually curious, leads him on. Their fearsome tormentor could be a projection – a menace built from their temptation – spawned from guilt and distrust that have latched onto their commitment to the dream of eternal love and salvation.
These children have had a very specific upbringing, and they recite prayers with a regimented efficiency. William and Katherine discuss bounding Thomasin out to another household; a common 17th Century practice, but it is her sexual awakening and curiosity about the world that makes her a target. The film’s finale is an extension of this theme, an ecstasy, a freedom from religious mania and oppression. A commitment to ‘living deliciously’ at great cost.
The performance are committed – veterans Ralph Ineson (whom many will recognise as ‘Finchy’ from The Office) and Kate Dickie (Red Road, For Those in Peril) are compelling, while Taylor-Joy (who is going to be big) is entrancing – maintaining an unspoken connection to the audience; caught in a position of both understanding what must be done, and fearing the consequences. Ineson effectively conveys his character’s crippling psyche, even as he seeks to maintain physical dominance. Scrimshaw also has a very physical task, and in one scene in particular his commitment is remarkable.
This is not a film likely to have you screaming and covering your eyes, but one that builds a sickening feeling of unease. There are no harsh musical cues to tell you when to jump, or attempts to trick an audience into a reaction, but Eggers is discreet with his reveals. He often withholds from the audience the source of the horror on the face of his characters – and for me, this is highly effective. Such confident commitment to a rarely explored period is impressive in itself, but to tackle one of fiction’s great mythical menaces at the time when their believed-existence was an actual source of civil hysteria and destruction is fascinating.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer(s): Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Runtime: 93 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: March 17, 2016 (limited)