The world of Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch is one often unseen in horror cinema. In a genre so rife with contemporary tales of mental hospital escapees and beasts from beyond our galaxy, sometimes it’s more refreshing to take a step back to a simpler time. The Witch takes place in the early 17th century, at a time when America was but a fledgling British colony. They had ventured into a land uncharted and unknown to them, a land of dense forest and dark underbrush with anything imaginable lurking in the trees. It’s this sense of uncertainty that The Witch feeds on, with impeccable results.
The Witch focuses on a family of puritans who have been expelled from their colony and now have to fend for themselves in the wilderness. This family consists of William, the family patriarch, his wife Katherine, and their five children: Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy, Jonas, and the baby Samuel. One overcast day on their small farm, Samuel is snatched from Thomasin’s care by the titular witch, who grinds up the baby, bathes in its remains, and covers a stick with its blood which it then uses to masturbate. Of course, it only goes downhill from here. The film’s plot is largely one of familial hysteria, often aimed at Thomasin as a scapegoat.
Speaking of goats, the witch’s ominous presence is supplemented by the family’s goat, named Black Philip after its pitch dark coat. Mercy and Jonas say it speaks to them, but they’re not exactly reliable sources given they’re so young. There’s an unsettling ambiguity about this animal up until the end of the film that adds another layer to the proceedings. If Black Philip is indeed an evil force, is it an agent of the witch or something else entirely? Or could it be just an ordinary animal?
One sticking point or complaint often lobbed at The Witch is how totally incomprehensible the characters can be. This criticism stems from the fact that all the dialogue in this film was written in period-appropriate English, with plenty of words like “hath” and “thou” and “whilst.” This was an excellent choice, though, as it creates another level of immersion into the world of the film. It feels more genuine than just writing the characters like they’re from 2014. It can take a little getting used to, but I’d recommend subtitles just in case.
The performances in this film are top notch for the genre. Because the film smartly hinges heavily on interpersonal character drama over scary set-pieces that you might see in most other horror films, Eggers and company seem to have known they needed to get some high caliber actors in on this. Breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Thomasin, bringing a dimension of anxiety and helplessness to the character that couldn’t be found in a lesser actor. Harvey Scrimshaw is great as her brother Caleb, especially in a scene near the end of the second act that I’m trying my hardest not to spoil. I’d also like to give special mention to Ralph Ineson for his role as William, the father. Specifically, I’d like to mention his voice, which is perfectly deep and gravelly for the manly, patriarchal character.
The cinematography in The Witch isn’t exactly the flashiest you’ll see in a recent horror film, but its care is more in its subtlety. The camera rarely moves further away than medium shots, keeping a claustrophobic feel to the film’s drama. The lighting frequently uses natural sources such as candlelight to give the film an extra dimension of realism. Another small touch is in its color grading. For non-firelit scenes, the film often keeps to a dull grayish-green color scheme. This keeps everything looking natural and significantly dour.
Finally, I’d like to mention the soundtrack, something a good horror film is nothing without. Keeping with the running theme of naturalism, the composer of the film used only acoustic instruments to create the terrifying music of The Witch. It hits a lot of similar beats that you would expect a soundtrack of this type to hit, but it does its job elevating the tension and heightening the terror.
The Witch is frighteningly original and unique in such a way that it makes it look easy. Something especially shocking is that this is director Eggers’ first feature film as director. It’s ridiculously confident and adept. Hopefully, it’s the start of an upward climb by someone who may be one of the most exciting horror directors emerging today. I’m really anticipating his next film in 2019.