Billed as a ‘horror’ and set in the usual stomping ground of some creepy, foreboding woodland, The Witch by costume designer-turned-debut-writer/director Robert Eggers could be misconstrued as the standard scare-affair, with supernatural things lurking in the shadows, watching and waiting to make their presence known.
Be warned: the ‘horror’ is in fact more about the Puritanical lifestyle that the settler family lives in 17th Century New England, and the wrath of God justice should any of them step out of line. In this respect, there is a significant psychological impact to The Witch as all existence feels alien and unnerving to its latter-day audience.
William (Ralph Ineson from Game of Thrones) and his family, wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, also from Game of Thrones), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, Philippa from Endeavour), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are banished from their settlement by a Puritan court. They set up a modest home and small farm at the edge of some woodland.
Their religious piety cements their well-being. However, when their newborn son Samuel goes missing one day in Thomasin’s care, their meager and harsh existence begins to unravel and their faith is rocked to the core.
This slow-burning and sumptuous-looking tale is very visceral to watch and listen to. It is also devoid of special effects. Accompanying the subdued, earthy palette is the equally grueling speech of the era that instantly places you on the back foot. Trying to decipher what is being said with such emotion by the characters conjures a natural anxiety, preparing you for the mystery to unfold, even as you are still trying to get your bearings.
Eggers keeps things ambiguous throughout, right to the end frame. What feels like a standard period horror after the baby disappears is soon extinguished. The finger of ‘blame’ moves back and forth, even suggesting a goat is the culprit. As victims are taken, the wrongdoer must be unveiled eventually, surely? This is the film’s hold.
As sacrifices are made, the result is abhorrent to watch, and uncompromisingly brutal, starting with Baby Samuel’s demise early on that will repulse all. There is also that lingering, persistent fear of some unjust abuse occurring at any one moment that may well have been ‘normal’ behaviour at the time, but is forbidden nowadays. The familiar sexual connotations concerning Thomasin, in particular, feel unsavoury to witness.
The cast may be a list of TV stars – and it helps they are not household names, but all are magnificent in this on the big screen, especially Taylor-Joy. Her innocent beauty is simultaneously captivating and threatening, rendering her an unknown factor throughout. Ineson is raw and wounded as William, helpless to the forces at play, and up against seemingly dominant female personalities. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why this family was cast out of the settlement at the start – was it of their own doing? Eggers makes them a complete enigma which is fascinating. The acting alone ensures the film ticks along menacingly.
The Witch initially feels like a well-worn horror tale of old with distinguishable tropes. Nevertheless, once the layers are peeled back, there is a world of doubt and terror to experience in this art-house horror. The key is this is self-perpetuating as a present-day viewer – if you relinquish to the lifestyle experience you are witnessing, rather than have the scares delivered on a plate, as is the usual horror diet.