Release date: 11 March 2016
Running time: 92 min
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw
Robert Eggers’ directorial debut is more assured than those with double his experience. An incredibly bleak and spine-chilling folktale, The Witch‘s darkest moments nestle in your subconscious like the remnants of a lingering nightmare. A million miles away from the cheap scares of your average horror, Eggers instead prefers to slowly ease in the tension as if a python slowly constricting his prey. It recalls the bizarre paganism of The Wicker Man, as well as recent frontier stories like The Homesman and even the more effective elements of Shyamalan’s The Village, but remains a fascinating piece in its own right.
When William (Ineson) is exiled from a small community in New England with his wife and children, he takes to the harsh landscape to find somewhere new to bring up his family. It’s not long before they’re settled in a a run down farmstead, but their peace is shattered when their young baby suddenly disappears under the care of their teenaged daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy). Aggrieved by their loss, they become increasingly estranged as more mysterious occurrences continue to interrupt their daily routine.
Where The Witch impresses most is in its commitment to authenticity. From the opening shot we hear dialogue spoken with a thick Yorkshire accent, with words some will only be privy to hearing in the likes of a Shakespeare play. It’s spoken with a guttural, raw emotion; providing the basis for an immersive and utterly gripping drama which heightens the tension and atmosphere on an unprecedented level.
This is more than ably performed by an admirable cast, including British regulars Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson who throw themselves head first into the undoubtedly challenging material. The children are also impressive, with a haunting turn from Scrimshaw’s Caleb and Taylor-Joy playing her cards close to her chest. If this weren’t a horror this would be a fascinating drama regardless, the pervading air of religious paranoia and forbidden sexual desire offering a captivating glimpse into the lives of a family driven mad by fear and isolation.
As with many of horror’s most memorable creatures, the monster in question is barely glimpsed. Aside from a surprising -and horrifying- early appearance, the real terror is glimpsed in the smaller details; like the milk of a goat appearing as blood, the flickering of a candle or the unknown contents of a room’s shadowy corner. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke has a clear understanding of what puts us on edge, with lingering shots of woodland and empty rooms instantly creating a sense of unease. It’s beautiful to look at too; using natural light to highlight the grim reality of their surroundings, the mud and the cold creep into your bones.
The Witch will not appeal to everyone; those hoping for jump scares will undoubtedly be disappointed. However those with a passion for psychological horror need look no further. With Eggers due to direct another remake of Nosferatu in the not too distant future, he certainly appears to have found his calling. Let’s hope he can strike gold twice.