This stunning debut from writer, director Robert Egger’s has been garnering praise and notoriety ever since its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It terrified Stephen King, has been endorsed by The Church of Satan and is generally being regarded as a modern genre classic by the majority of critics. Sometimes the buzz and expectation bestowed upon on a film can ultimately set expectations too high and leave you disappointed by the end result. In this case however, the hype is justified. The Witch is a sublimely realised, beautifully crafted, pitch black piece of film making. If you are expecting a conventional, jump-scare fueled, throwaway horror film to go with your popcorn then you are most definitely going to be disappointed. This is a subtle, multi-layered, mood piece which evokes a relentlessly creepy and menacing tone. It slowly and quietly crawls under your skin whilst burning its stark, unsettling imagery onto your psyche. Prepare to be scarred.
Set in 1630’s New England, the film is centered on a family of Puritan settlers whom are banished from their community due to the outspoken religious beliefs of patriarch William (Ralph Ennison). His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), pubescent siblings Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) along with younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and infant Sam are subsequently forced out into the harsh wilderness to fend for themselves. The woods surrounding their homestead are the realm of dark forces which soon prey on the family and threaten to literally tear them apart.
Much like the doomed film crew who set off into the Maryland forest early on in The Blair Witch Project, you get the distinct feeling from the outset that things are not going to work out well for the family here. The traumatic maladies which are inflicted upon them over the course of the film are treacherously executed and conveyed on screen in a breathtaking manner. For the most part, the film avoids visceral gore or horror film genre tropes, but still manages to be as shocking and terrifying as the most memorable and revered films of this ilk such as The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby. The breakdown of the family unit, whilst being triggered by supernatural forces, feels real. This can be equally attributed to the mesmeric performances from the cast, as well as the meticulous research invested into the project by Eggers himself. A New England native, the director has stated that everything in the production from the dialogue to the set design and costumes has been replicated via genuine records and accounts of the period. Religious fervour and belief in witches was very much a part of life during this time. The film brilliantly captures this historical authenticity whilst blending in fantastical elements for optimum effect.
Thematically and stylistically The Witch draws certain parallels with another of 2015’s most memorable films, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Both delve into the dark heart of America’s past to reveal a violent, unsettling mirror of contemporary society, both place humanity against the harsh, unforgiving, untamed and unwelcoming American wilderness. Aesthetically they both utilise natural light, bleak colour palettes and memorable soundscapes to achieve the artistic goals of the filmmaker. Like Iñárritu, Eggers has announced himself as a sublime talent and true visionary. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where he goes next. For now, immerse yourself in The Witch, a film of devastating power that will blacken your soul, drag you to hell and grip you until the staggering, final frame. It will also make sure that you never go near a goat again…