The horror genre has seen a variety of evil beings throughout its illustrious history. The living dead, vengeful spirits, stalking slashers, and giant monsters have all had their day to scare onscreen. But there is one monster that consistently holds a place in nightmares: the witch.
More than a few people were creeped out as kids by The Wizard of Oz’s cackling green wicked witch and the decrepit, cloaked witch offering an apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While the mythology behind witches has become restrained by kid-friendly renditions seen in the Harry Potter franchise, the reality is that the historical nature of the witch is far more dark and malicious. The Witch is an impressive directorial debut from Robert Eggers, who transforms folklore into a mature examination of fear on numerous levels, fashioning one of the most stunning and unsettling horror films of the last decade.
The year is 1630. William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their three children are forced to leave their New England community over religious differences. William leads his tight-knit family to a remote territory at the edge of the forest with hopes of living off the land, but things begin to go terribly wrong. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest child; she has many responsibilities around their new home including helping her mom care for the newborn baby. Under Thomasin’s care, the newborn is snatched away during a playful game of peek-a-boo. This is the beginning of the family’s dismantling by evil forces living in the forest.
Some exceptional horror films have come out over the past years—The Babadook, It Follows, and The Conjuring are a few that come to mind. What separates good horror from mediocre horror—and this applies to most films—is an understanding of the genre and how to most effectively accommodate the use of convention and the structure of story. It’s not only about jump scares and gore, it’s about building an atmosphere that pulls the viewer into the world and establishes an identity that can be manipulated by the characteristics of the genre.
The Witch does all of this exceptionally well. The setup is a 1630s Puritan foundation in the New World. The community is steeped in religious fundamentalism, controlled by a doctrine influenced by fear and motivated by judgment and repentance. Take these elements and inject evil doings like witchcraft and black magic and the story becomes a struggle of dark overtaking light. But director Robert Eggers understands there is more to the composition than just these elements, and from the starting point Mr. Eggers introduces the struggle of a family leaving the familiar and moving into the unknown.
From the departure of their homeland in England and the banishment from their religious community in the New World, this family is experiencing immense change. They are quickly recognized as outsiders in a new society, forced to survive by any means necessary. And survival, as seen in many cinematic affairs, has a way of changing people, of making them see the world in different, threatening ways. These narrative elements help create interesting dynamics when applied to aspects of family, faith, and fear.
The minimalistic qualities within the film are exceptionally rendered. The photography, which is shot as if the clouds are slowly capturing the sky, composes imagery that is beautiful in both its subdued and terrifying moments. Most of the photography is shot within natural settings, creating an environment that is often on the verge of darkness, while the score is frequently touched with silence, saving the big sounds for the big payoffs of shock.
The family is a fascinating mix: a father whose biggest foe is his pride, a mother racked with guilt and sorrow, and two maturing children dealing with new emotions. Thomasin, played splendidly by Anya Taylor-Joy, matures consistently throughout the course of the film. Her timid demeanor transitions into one that is resolute and confident, all while everything around her unravels in the worst possible way. Is her maturation a calling to the forces that lurk in the woods? Her progression is influenced by characters like Suzy Bannion from Suspiria or even Carrie White from Carrie.
Caleb, played by the intense-yet-delicate Harvey Scrimshaw, is also experiencing a rush of feelings. As a boy with inherent responsibilities during a time of men embodying protector and provider characteristics and as a young man with sexual curiosity while at the crossing line of puberty, Caleb is enticed in numerous ways. Mr. Eggers utilizes these characters in creative ways, allowing the dramatic elements to float slowly to the surface as the dread mounts.
“Dread” may not come close to describing the sensation the The Witch produces. It’s something darker and more authentic than what that term embodies. It’s a nightmare that you can’t wake up from, one that lures you into its world and then forces you to keep going when you want to turn back. The Witch is simply impressive filmmaking and a relentlessly tormenting horror film.
Movie Score: 5/5