An uncommonly absorbing horror film, The Witch is a far more spiritually and psychologically fraught experience than the average mainstream fright fare. In the process, it makes witchcraft absolutely terrifying again, in all the ways Bewitched, Harry Potter, and Halloween decorations have softened it over the decades. It does so by committing to austere period piece seriousness, setting its tale in a convincing, authentically recreated, and well-researched 1600’s colonial New England, where witches and other malevolent evil spirits were a more regular source of real worry. Remember the Salem Witch Trials. The film does an impressive job of rooting its narrative in the context of a deeply religious people whose beliefs give accusations of witchcraft a real terror and weight. Like all the best horror films, it makes its monsters into effective metaphor, stand-ins for the fear and tension in the wilderness of colonial life for people who’ve left their homeland to find uncertainty and difficulty of survival in a new land. It’s about a feeling of life falling apart, beyond control, and how hard it is to protect your family from those dangers.
Writer/director Robert Eggers (a production designer making a most impressive feature debut) creates a film firmly embedded in a historical reality and deeply understanding of its characters struggles, emotionally, materially, and spiritually. It concerns itself with the life of a small family cast out from their village to live on their own in a clearing in the woods. A stoic father (Ralph Ineson) is sure they’ll survive by farming, with plenty of crops to eat and trade. But as a permanent fog of overcast grayness lingers over their land, and the corn slowly rots on the cobs, a sense of gloom and trepidation descends. It’s a mood that only worsens when their infant son disappears during a game of peek-a-boo with his teenage sister (Anya Taylor-Joy). He’s there one moment, gone without a trace the next. There’s something very wrong here. Their mother (Kate Dickie) is devastated; the girl who was watching the baby is haunted by guilt, and her family’s suspicions. The other children, a well-intentioned tween boy (Harvey Scrimshaw) and whimsical young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), try to go on the best they can.
It’s in the surrounding woods, dark and foreboding, where we see glimpses of the witch, a cackling crone doing unspeakable unclear dark magic in an early, deeply upsetting montage. Mostly, though, we’re with the family as they try their best to mourn the lost baby and eke out a meager existence on their tiny farm. Eggers’ sense of tone is impressively controlled, casting a spell of heavy dread. There’s a subtle droning, rhythmically clacking score erupting in swirling evil soprano vocalizations at the film’s creepiest moments. But for long stretches what we see is simply farm work, chores, children playing, fervent praying. Like the village in Haneke’s similarly stark White Ribbon, this is a normal life, a daily struggle for survival, where the strain of quotidian danger puts pressure on people’s relationships, allowing their own worst fears to manifest. Children behave strangely. People mysteriously disappear and reappear. Sickness descends. “I’ve become like Job’s wife,” the mother sobs, interrupting her urgent, incessant praying. The lonely isolated family unit is surrounded by fear of the unknown.
The supernatural threat lingering in the wilderness is only the most literal expression of the existential panic settling over them all. The trancelike filmmaking – patient, well considered, edited like a softly breathing dream state – emphasizes the spiritual angst. Pale light suffuses Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, which might as well be black and white in its most evocative moments of flickering flame-lit inky unknowable darkness. It’s an ice-cold surface; underneath roils unspoken doubts and desires, certainties and questioning. The father worries they’ll run out of food and won’t last the winter. The mother is concerned for the safety of her children and wants to return to England. The teenage girl frets about her parent’s disapproval and siblings’ judgment. The pre-teen boy is feeling biological urges unable to find healthy expression, manifesting as partially submerged innocent incestuous inquisitiveness, staring at his older sister’s body with curiosity. The younger kids love antagonizing their devilish goat Black Phillip and singing songs with folkloric darkness brimming through. It’s they who first wonder if there’s a witch in their midst.
The filmmaking creates an impressive and immersive sense of place and time, populated with perfectly calibrated performances, from the adults down to the child actors. (Even the goat has great expressive personality.) I was so lost in their work I felt I was seeing a real family of the time before my eyes. Eggers’ screenplay is rich with archaic sentence structures and older English diction, sounding like some lost historical document or dusty literary source. Indeed the end credits mention his copious research on colonial folklore and incident, which sometimes made it word-for-word into a script far more fluid and vital than such provenance would suggest. There’s a real feel for the character’s beliefs, of their religious fervor as both great solace and great torment. They predate Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but its there in the urgency with which they confess their sins in whispered prayers, feeding their feeling of supernatural judgment, a curse that’s befallen them in desperate need of lifting. They believe deeply, and that belief, the bone-deep penitential 17th century Christian certitude, gives the film its ethereal charge. They’re afraid for their lives, but even more so they’re afraid for their eternal souls.
The Witch is scary, with long sequences of eerie behavior and a few well-placed sudden shocks of gore, but worse is the real spiritual torment it puts these characters through. It taps into the fear of good and evil manifested in their lives, where the fear of omnipresent evil may be enough to make one give in and join it. Horror films all too rarely make that conflict feel so vivid and real, especially as it taps into a related real-world fear of failing those closest to you, giving into the darkness that surrounds you, and bad decisions leaving your loved ones vulnerable. It’s bleak and despairing, an enveloping, slow-burning, cage-rattling freak-out. It lingers with powerfully unsettling intensity, closer in spirit to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining than the usual modern multiplex horror fare as it builds to its harrowing tragic ending. This is the best, most intensely unsettling and heartrending horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.