The Witch (or the VVitch as it’s labeled on the movie posters, in an homage to early 17th century printers who would use two Vs next to each other rather than a capital W), is a stark, haunting period piece set in 1630’s New England. For this to be a debut feature film by Robert Eggers, who served as both writer and director is nothing short of amazing. Everyone that one hopes for in a thoughtful, play it close-to-the-chest film that falls in the horror category, can be found here.
While it’s labelled as a horror film, it’s perhaps closer described as a religious thriller. The film opens with family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) being called before the village elders on some theological dispute (but is never expressly spelled out beyond it dealing with the New Testament), and winds up being sent away from the plantation into the wilderness to set up his own farm with his family. It’s this shorthand of knowing what to spell out for the viewer for them to stay with the story versus what not to overshare. Why William is exiled is never clear, however it doesn’t need to be. It just serves to highlight that his own religious beliefs are so specific that he would rather be alone in an untamed frontier rather than stay in a community which he disagrees with. Differences of world views here are not high on the priority list.
The mother is the far too-tightly-wound to be away from civilization, Katherine (Kate Dickie), the eldest daughter is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the elder son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas, and baby Samuel. Suddenly Samuel vanishes and cannot be found. In the midst of the search, a series of visions are seen which seem to imply that a witch has taken him and used him in a sacrifice. William is well meaning, but inept at farming as well as hunting. Trying to hunt for a rabbit his rifle misfires. Between the hardships, and their devotion to scripture, Katherine turns to the next logical conclusion, they are cursed, or that one of the children is a witch – and Thomasin becomes the focus of her paranoia.
The story being set less than 60 years before the mania that gripped Salem, in this quiet isolation, with something always just looming outside of sight in the forrest or behind the trees. Perhaps had they been less tied to the bible and more tuned to the local spirits, there might have been another out. Modern horror with lots of gore is not the name of the game for The Witch, instead it’s a slow buildup of dread. Are the visions the audience seeing real, or are they the internal imaginings of one or more of the family members.
It does succeed both in setting a superb time and place, with accent and language largely correct. The feelings of isolation and imparting to a largely secular audience what kinds of fears and solutions might arise for a Puritan so strict with his family that the other Puritans all but said “sir, you’re a bit hardcore.”
If it’s a slasher/killer you seek, this isn’t the film for you, if it’s something with mystery, dread, and building fear of what the answer might be (and infinitely better than the Blair Witch Project ever was), go see it as soon as you get the chance.
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