I’ll just come out and say it: today’s horror movies are severely lacking. Most of them just aren’t scary, but instead, rather pale imitations that rely too much on disappointing jump scares and a rolling list of expected tropes that cheapen the experience and leave me wanting more – which makes the arrival of Robert Eggers’ invigorating debut film The Witch a most welcome entry into the horror genre. It’s the sort of film that reminds what can make the genre so appealing to so many. The Witch is one of those experiences that stays with you days after seeing it, finding places to linger with in the furthest recesses of the mind.
Eggers drops us coldly into 1630s New England where a family is cast out from its former Puritan community after criticizing the leadership’s devotion to God. They’re forced out into the wilderness to fend for themselves, relying on their new land to provide the crops they will need in order to survive. The Witch instantly submerges you into the creepy atmosphere of this time period, large in part to the bone-chilling score composed by Mark Korve. The sinister sounds, combined with the haunted landscapes, lay out the groundwork for Eggers’ slow-burn creeper to work its fear-induced magic on you to supreme effect.
Just as the parents, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), are getting the family settled in, the unthinkable happens. While their oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is out watching her new-born baby brother Samuel, the child suddenly vanishes. Accusations are thrown, and the rest of the family is at a lost coping with the unthinkable reality of the child’s fate, as well as Thomasin’s possible role in his departure.
Eggers smartly gives us a glimpse of the titular character after snatching the baby, but only enough to let us know that her existence is real, making the threat real. From there he’s able to play with our minds, tempting us with another possible sight of the witch, but the actual glimpses that we get are few and far between, making them stunningly effective to a rather terrifying degree when they do occur. It’s everything in between that works to favorably for The Witch, allowing our mind to do all the work for us, creating a sense of dread that’s inescapable.
While there is a sense of the horror that is waiting on the outside, there’s plenty of horror that is in plain sight within. The family becomes torn apart over their missing child and the possible causes that they dance around, afraid to believe the actual truths. In a pivotal scene where the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) becomes possessed, and accusations are made within the family as to who is beyond the witchcraft at hand. The families young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), begins to accuse Thomasin of dabbling in witchcraft, creating a hellish nightmare that sets to tear the family apart. The witch isn’t even seen, but the presence such a strong effect on the family that it causes them to break down, questioning not only their faith, but each other.
Eggers took his time with The Witch, giving his due diligence to the history of New England witchcraft, pulling from 17th century diaries and documents, giving the film a brand of authenticity that only adds to the bone chilling realism at hand. The choice to have his characters speak in the old-school dialect of the time makes it all feel that much more authentic. Then there’s the traditional symbolic appearance of animals such as the creepy goat Black Phillip (bound to be a horror icon), as well as a wide-eyed hare and crow, whose brief appearance is one of the most horrific scenes of the entire film.
For a first time director, Eggers impresses as if he’s been making films for years. This is an assured and confidently directed film that is well crafted and hauntingly beautiful. He brings out terrific performances from his entire cast, from hard-working character actors Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, as well as newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw. You’ll be hard pressed to discuss this film and not mention the effect that Black Phillip and the other animals have on the films eerie nature. Their use is limited, but always totally effecting. Credit to Eggers and cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and editor Louise Ford for making it all work so well.
The ending of The Witch may be the point where the film either totally wins you over or drives you mad, but I found it an appropriate conclusion that acted as a satisfying payoff for all that we saw before it. In the days since attending my screening, I’ve found myself thinking about the film, and coming back to a certain creepy image or feeling that it gave me along with Korve’s spine-tingling score. As a debut filmmaker, Eggers has created something of merit that is genuinely a creepy experience that will stay with you.
The Witch is not only the best film released so far in the (very) young year, but it’s one of the best horror movies that I’ve seen in a long time.