The Witch, a superb horror film directed by Robert Eggers, hits nationwide today. And it’s a reminder to moviegoers that, often, the key to horror is not blood and guts but patience and atmosphere.
This movie doesn’t make viewers jump out of their seats, but hide deep into them. As this story unfolds, it’s hard to ignore the ominous force building on the screen. The force, in this case, isn’t a monster or some psycho killer, but the movie itself. Eggers doesn’t rely on cheap tricks or old horror tropes; he directs his audience to dig deeper into each moment, therein casting suspicion on the entire family. It would be hard for me to pinpoint the last time I left a film feeling this uneasy. The Witch is a ninety minute whirlwind of evil. The Occult is at the forefront of this picture, and your tolerance of those images is tested.
The secret to the success of Eggers debut is the atmosphere in the film. The Witch is set it 1630 New England and insistent upon staying true to the era. Eggers makes up for occasionally stilted dialogue with superb imagery that conveys plenty about the Puritan lifestyle. The imagery is what takes this film to new heights of horror as Eggers manages to capture seemingly simple moments in such a way that add tension. Instead of a shot of the woods, it’s a slow creeping shot of the woods that creates the impression that something must be inside it (and there is).
The Puritan law makes outcasts of William (Ralph Ineson) and his family at the beginning of The Witch. After being charged with blasphemy, William builds a remote farm with his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), preteen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson). Strange things start happening to that family – failing crops, bloody goat’s milk, and a missing baby. It’s hinted throughout that William and Thomasin had more than a typical relationship. Thomasin’s brother even starts to hint at the inappropriate behavior. The twins (Thomasin’s siblings) are strange, to say the least, and live to torment her. To top it all off, Black Phillip (a black goat the twins befriend) might be more than what he seems.
Eggers brilliance is on display as the film unfolds one unsettling image at a time. He strips down the movie to it’s barest form which on the surface seems like a terrible idea, but it works here. Nothing unsettling happens or shocking; just a slow, meticulous building of terror. Eggers has a tremendously committed cast. Taylor-Joy is a revelation, exuding a beauty that plays Thomasin’s naive suspicions and eventual transformation perfectly. Ineson’s role is the perfect foil to Taylor-Joy’s, his gruffness just adds to the slow tension building throughout the film. These performances only enhance The Witch and make Eggers stripped down approach convincing.
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Rating: R; violence, nudity
Running time: 90 min.