Set in Ye Olde New England, this near satanic horror film centers on a pilgrim family in the 1600’s that have been banished from society for their radical religious views so they trek back into the woods from whence they came. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), and mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), take their five children into a realm of the New England forest untapped by humans and on the cusp of a ghoulish dimension.
It fancies itself a “New England folk tale” and is the rare horror movie that is as thematically thought provoking as it is terrifying and artful. First time director Robert Eggers has created a film about disintegrating family caused by black magic paranoia. The central character is a teenage girl named Thomasin whose on the cusp of becoming a woman. She’s played by an utterly mesmerizing Anya Taylor-Joy. Like, if the Oscars had any sense she would get a nomination.
In a simple but terrifyingly effective moment, Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her infant brother and when she opens her eyes he has vanished. She stares into the sinister woods. It’s a scary moment on both pure horror and emotional levels while also being the catalyst of torment for the family. Grief and guilt manifest themselves in entities of terror that work ambiguously. Omen’s come in the form of animals and objects that cause emotional rifts in the family.
Thomasin’s coming of age clashes with her parents strict radical values and takes the film into an almost parallel universe where themes/ideas mutate into abstract horrors. Eggers has calibrated this world so uniquely that one has to fully absorb into it’s frequency. The dialect is distinct and takes a few scenes to dial into. His film language operates with blunt rhythmic editing and minimalist almost abstract imagery while emotional connection is kept at a chilly arms length. By doing all of this Eggers has lured the audience into his wooded maze where we have to reckon with his horrors.
Early on Thomasin scares her young annoying twin siblings (The Shining nod) by claiming to be a witch. After she and her brother Caleb go into the woods and he becomes lost, the younger twins accuse her of witchcraft and the parents begin to resent Thomasin. The Salem witch trials are mere decades away from them and while never obviously shown, black magic atmosphere moves in like fog through the woods and into the families home as their relationships become paralyzed with dread.
Perhaps a Witch is literally in the woods haunting the family, or are they nightmarish manifestations of the families strict adherence to century old values? Or both? Eggers holds his cards close and tries to balance these two different sides of the story. The ambiguities and abstractions are left a bit undercooked because the familial narrative takes center stage. The result leaves moments of extreme highs and then moments of short flatlines. This is the cost of ambition and luckily his mix of paranoia and possible fantasy is confidently woven into orchestral hysteria. Think The Crucible meets The Blair Witch Project meets The Shining.
Eggers foregoes cheap pop out scares and gore for horror that’s found in unique places; imagery, emotion, space, rhythmic editing, sounds off screen. In fact, what’s so unique and pronounced about The Witch is its ability to never conform to the staples of the genre while simultaneously fulfilling — and even transcending — what the genre used to mean. As his radicalized religious themes bleed into his monster, new questions are birthed in abstract ideas and images found in the film’s final third.
The only crack with the film is that it’s familial relationships aren’t quite strong enough to rely on outside of the horror and there are small chunks in the film that don’t aim to scare. 2 or 3 more scary sequences, and a richer familial center likely would’ve pushed this to spine chilling masterpiece status. But at a potent 90 minutes, any minor lulls are quick and this is Thomasin’s story anyways.
Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg and Ingmar Bergman’s influence move through its filmic elements like ghosts. The framing of images finds eerie beauty and builds unease and anxiety instead of typical scares. The sound design traps the audience in an auditory satanic dimension. Ana Taylor-Joy is a REVELATION. A REVELATION. It’s a family tale but her arc is central and one of rich themes and daring originality. And make no mistake, while not traditionally scary, there are terrifying moments in The Witch that left me immobilized in my seat.
Horrifying unidentifiable rhythms move beneath The Witch‘s chilly surface and break through in the most surprising of places. To be frank, I’m so happy that we’ve been given a horror film for smart people. My favorite horror film since Antichrist (2009). I cannot wait to try to step deeper into its forest of thematic terrors.
A black magic folk tale that tramples over the horror genre and announces the arrival of a new voice in cinema. A modern horror classic.
Go see it!