The Witch Review
Being a horror fan is a testing occupation. It’s a genre that requires the patience of a saint. Horror films come thick and fast, and for every splendidly terrifying effort like It Follows or The Babadook there’s an equally horrifying, for all the wrong reasons, Mama or Paranormal Activity 4. Finally that unwavering persistence reserved for navigating the malaise of cheap jump scares, repetitive exorcisms and oblivious students, has found a cinematic purpose. Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch draws on satanical threats in the familiar puritan setting, but favours a slow burning, patient, examination of paranoia, dread and faith over cheap thrills.
Titled as a “New England folk tale”, the film focuses on a family of 17th century Puritans after their excommunication from the local plantation. The cause of their expulsion is left to vague accusations of religious differences between father William (Ralph Ineson) and town’s elders. Now posted in the remote wilderness, on the cusp of an impenetrably dark forest, the family are struck by tragedy when their youngest child, a mere baby, vanishes with a whistle of the wind. Soon the crops begin to rot and the hunting traps fail under a foreboding evil in the bleak woodland. It’s only uttered discreetly and in jest, but could this ominous presence be a witch?
Though the titular creature is pinpointed as the underlying cause of the family’s misfortunes, the terror is left ambiguously open. After the baby’s disappearance we’re shown, albeit masked in shadows, a gruesome ritual of a haggard woman preening a child before coating herself in blood and entrails. This could be the mysterious witch, but it could also be the puritan’s worst fears and nightmares. Like Mia Farrow’s dreamy clandestine rape by the devil in Rosemary’s Baby, this surreal vision of the supposed ‘witch’ makes everything subsequent a questionable reality.
In the film’s fevered religious atmosphere sin, and therefore evil, is omnipresent. The source of the family’s troubles leads to a proverbial witch hunt within the ranks. Each family member is framed as flawed with sin; the father is plagued by self-doubt around “prideful conceit”; son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) has lustful thoughts over his sister; mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) is overwhelmed with grief; the young twins are devilish by design, and daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) draws suspicion through her lack of faith and passive allure.
The greatest strength of The Witch lies in its ambiguity. While Thomasin creeps into the fore as the focus of the family and audiences’ aspersions, it’s plausible that any of them are to blame. The family’s zealous puritanical belief protects them from the enclosing evil as much as it fuels the fire of paranoia. Aided by the script being spoken entirely in the old English dialect, The Witch is an examination of life defined by religion as much as it’s a horror story. Perhaps the family’s biggest fear isn’t what lurks in the woods, but the monsters inherent to their rigid belief in a world revolving around the threat of hell and eternal damnation.
As a result of the film’s focus on family and religious concerns there’s a notable lack of classic horror on show. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s insistence on natural light creates an ominous air where the shadows hide a real sense of doom. Similarly, the eerie rural setting, reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project’s haunt, is supplemented by Mark Korven’s horror tailored score of screeching strings. But for all the sense of foreboding seldom do you feel that paralysing fear that great horror trades in. The basic premise of horror is struggle between the helpless human and the all-powerful, unrelenting, pursuer. The Shining, Halloween and most recently It Follows have all succeeded in exhilarating audiences by drawing on this dynamic, but The Witch fails to ever get the pulse truly racing from the thrill of the chase.
The film’s final pay-off is a divisive one. It will either reveal itself as surprising twist or as a daft let down. For me it was certainly the latter. Beyond its potential to induce sly sniggering, the ending disappointingly betrays the ambiguity and mystery that compels throughout. You could optimistically pass it off under the fog of dreamy surrealism, but that appears a rather wishful excuse to its jarring absurdity.
If you go down to the woods today expecting good old fashioned scares you’ll be left disappointed. To bill the The Witch, worse yet overstate it, as a horror is misleading. The Witch is an unsettling psychological drama played out under the backdrop of puritanical hysteria. Egger’s has cleverly woven Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man for an engrossing period folk tale. It’s a far more ambitious film than the stock horror package, but at the expense of adrenaline shot we really desire from the genre. On the plus side, you’ll probably be able to sleep with the lights off after this one.
7/10 – Double, double not all toil and trouble