The first feature film from director-screenwriter Robert Eggers, The Witch is the harrowing tale of a 17th century New England family’s descent into chaos, terrorised by an unseen evil lurking in the nearby woods. Whilst certainly more mature and intelligent than many horrors, The Witch never completely finds its footing, dilly-dallying longer than strictly necessary before going in for the kill, and will likely lose the interest of less resilient viewers.
The family in question are banished from their Puritan settlement for some undisclosed reason, vaguely implied to involve a religious disagreement between farmer William (Ralph Ineson) and the town’s council. William sets up a modest farm on an isolated piece of land with his astringent wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children, to lead a pious and austere life. Disaster strikes one day when baby Samuel is snatched from beneath the nose of his eldest sister, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); whilst their father puts the loss down to wolves, young twins Mercy and Jonas speak ominously and, as we are well aware, accurately – of witchcraft. Consumed by grief and with their crops failing, the family become increasingly desperate, though they cling to their faith and pray for deliverance. With the family ties unravelling, Thomasin soon becomes the scapegoat, with only her barely pubescent brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), as an ally.
The level of detail that has gone into the 17th century setting is faultless, with the carefully rendered style of speech, hand-stitched costumes and meticulous set-design delivering lashings of realism. The overt religious nature of The Witch is both a blessing and curse. On the one hand it provides an interesting historicity and paves the way nicely for the cult of hysteria that emerges once the family come under threat, but it also tends to to grate a little, particularly in the postponement of the thrills we keep expecting to arrive. The wait for this is a long one, with much of the tension and scares coming from the soundtrack – a panic-inducing frenzy of operatic and string crescendos straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey – rather than the visuals. Combined with a skillful cinematographic style favouring natural light, uncluttered framing and moody tones, The Witch achieves an artful and suspenseful ambiance that can arguably compensate for the lack of more customary scares, resulting in an eerie finished product that feels rather like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village done right.
The Witch is released nationwide on 11th March 2016. It is part of the First Feature competition at the 59th London Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for The Witch here: