(The Witch, 2016)
A fascinating duality of horror.
By Lucy Goldsmith
Going into The Witch (2016), one expects yet another Crucible-esque ‘Old England folk tale’ rehash with seen-before horror elements. Coming out of the cinema, first-time director Robert Eggers’ immersive transportation into a paranoia-saturated situation will linger in the shadows of the mind. The premise is classic: a man (Ralph Ineson) and his family (Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie) exiled from their religious community to an uncomfortably unfamiliar wilderness start to experience unexplainable and frightening circumstances, starting with the disappearance of their baby. As domestic tensions surface and the children misbehave, will the supernatural disturbances happening in the dense forest sitting silently on the border of their homestead invade to tear the paranoid family apart?
Like recently released and acclaimed psychological horror masterpieces The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014), The Witch presents a refreshingly original screenplay that stands out amongst the swathes of prequels, sequels, and remakes that have saturated the horror genre of late – although this may not be immediately clear from its cliché-heavy marketing. Like the film itself, the surprise is in its subtlety.
Robert Eggers delivers a stunning piece of cinema – the unnerving believability of the familiar premise hinges on its visceral and incredible historical accuracy in terms of costume, set design, and language. Eggers’ background in costume design and his astonishing 4 years research preparing for The Witch clothe the film with realistic emotion that adds credence to the bleak visuals of an austere Puritan family. We see a strained hopelessness, a very real 17th Century struggle in and with an unfamiliar land, and a desperate self-questioning of the faith keeping them sane. That you have to grapple with the Old English dialogue to interpret what’s going on adds to the edginess of the film, minimalist in its uneasy atmosphere as it already is. Just as the family is at odds their new exile-enforced environment, so the audience is not permitted to feel any control either. And herein lies the power of the film. 90 deliciously slow minutes of quiet, unsettling dread builds and builds, with terrifying satanic presences that feel appropriately Biblical in their raw form adding fuel to the fire. The threatening presence of the woodland encroaches; the claustrophobia mounts to a silent screaming peril.
Some might decry the pacing as the film’s weakness – it’s not exactly a gory, jump-scare-a-minute romp that allows you to check your phone midway through. And what it relies on most – beautifully shot, character-led quiet terror – would not nearly be as effective if it were not so expertly executed.
A fascinating duality of horror is presented in The Witch: that which the viewer gets from seeing the impending threat of the unknown ‘witch’, and that felt between the characters on screen; the horror of religious fervour. This is where weaker parts of the film, such as the multiple directions and mythologies it tries to include, can be excused for being intentional additions. They just add to a mounting viewer (and character) confusion and fear; that nothing is exactly certain about the witch, and nothing can be predicted as to what happens next. A slow burner this may be, but ultimately, if such a film can manage to kindle in your mind a fear of woodlands, hares, and goats which lingers in your head a little bit longer than is comfortable after leaving the cinema, it’s definitely done a damn good job of getting under your skin.