Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriter: Robert Eggers
Released: 27/01/2015 (Sundance Film Festival), 19/2/2016 (United States)
Note: contains spoilers for ‘The Witch’ (2015)
Although officially touted as a ‘period supernatural horror film’, suspense would be a more accurate description of Robert Eggers’ supremely confident directorial debut. Granted, the supernatural and horror elements are overwhelmingly present (although the supernatural is admittedly more evoked that it is outright featured), but the key to the film’s success lies in its unwavering, almost cruel commitment to tension. Alfred Hitchcock always insisted that directors should “always make the audience suffer as much as possible”, and Eggers’ movie seems to have taken his word to the literal extreme. Unlike most suspense films, which occasionally ease up to make room for lighter moments or more straightforward drama, ‘The Witch’ manages to maintain the suspense even during its purely dramatic scenes. It’s a bleak, oppressive, sadistic, almost unbearable nightmare of a film, but one that manages to hypnotise its audience into paying attention.
Praising ‘The Witch’ for its suspense seems almost too obvious, but it also happens to be its greatest asset. That’s not to say it’s the only asset, however, as the cleverly conceived setting and the raw performances of its leads come together to create one of the most atmospheric films ever put to screen. Ironically, the opening scene itself in which the New England-based family are banished from a plantation and forced to live off of the land happens to be its weakest, both in terms of conception, execution and dialogue. The contrived nature of the family’s banishment is arguably inevitable, but was it strictly necessary to include an entire scene in which the family is publically humiliated following their banishment? Maybe so, but it’s an odd way to begin such an intensely isolated film in a way that could potentially alienate viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the horror genre. The dialogue is the biggest hurdle the film never entirely overcomes, but as the film progressed, I found myself settling into the unconventionally poetic rhythm of the speech. It’s a little worrying at first, mind, as William (Ralph Ineson) rants in that near-indecipherable language for several minutes before the film finally establishes its (very basic) setup.
The moment the camera sets its sights upon that forest, however, Eggers’ script launches into an ultra-confident sprint that never lets up for the remaining hour and a half. Ideally, that initial shot of the ludicrously eerie forest should have been the opening shot of the film, as the camera pans away to reveal the family whose lives are inevitably going to be destroyed (that’s my input, anyway). The inevitably of the family’s fate is what really makes ‘The Witch’ as mesmerising as it is. What really sets this apart from most modern horrors is how it never tries to trick the audience, but rather, gets down to business in dismantling the family without ever needing to rush. The first ‘jump’ scare isn’t a jump scare at all, but rather, one of the most unsettling moments of the whole film, as Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays peek-a-boo with her baby brother, Samuel, before Samuel inexplicably vanishes to Thomasin’s horror. Rather than keep the viewer entirely in the dark, we’re treated (if that’s the word to use) to a brief scene in which the as-yet-unidentified witch is seen crushing his body in a pulp and smearing his remains over her nude form. It’s chilling, but never crosses the border into distastefulness. It’s Samuel’s disappearance that triggers the gradual descent into hell the family must endure over the coming days, as each member grows increasingly suspicious of one another as to which member is the titular witch.
The identity of the witch isn’t especially important, mind you, as it’s the absence of that knowledge that gives the film its edge. For that matter, there’s no implication for a substantial duration of the runtime that the witch even happens to be a member/s of the family, or is simply an external force attempting to manipulate them into murdering one another. At its most basic essence, ‘The Witch’ may be deemed as little more than a highly atmospheric ‘whodunit’, but it’s in the execution of this premise where Eggers’ film shows its maturity. That the family is as closely bonded as they are gives the film its much-needed intensity, with the only weak link in the chain being the twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), who never really make any real impression beyond Mercy’s occasional tantrums. The twins being the culprits is far too obvious, something the film eventually recognises considering how quickly William turns on them and imprisons them. The relationship between Thomasin and her brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and Caleb and his father are the real standouts here. Throughout the film, Caleb is brutally victimised, becoming a victim of his hormones, his religious fears, the witch, and eventually, death itself. Despite this, Caleb himself pulls through as the film’s second-strongest character, with Harvey Scrimshaw turning in a surprisingly mature performance as a boy caught in a cruel web of deception.
Only his older sister, Thomasin, manages to come through as the film’s strongest element. While the closeness of her bond with her brother is only ever hinted at, we get enough hints as to the love they have for one another (Caleb’s occasional ogling of his sister is never shown to be insidious), and neither ever become suspicious of one another despite the deterioration of their situation. Anya Taylor-Joy comes across as an actress of greater experience than her years, able to balance innocence with malevolence seemingly without difficulty, as evidenced during her cruel jest at Mercy’s expense, in which she tries to convince her sister that she’s the witch (a jest with traumatic recursion’s later). The most tragic relationship, however, is the breaking of her bond with her father. Following Caleb’s traumatic death, we’re momentarily led to believe that William still has faith in his increasingly alienated daughter, only to have this hope brutally taken away moments later as William furiously declares Thomasin to be a liar. It’s a heartbreaking scene, in equal parts reassuring and terrifying, as we come to understand how ferociously the combination of paranoia and recent loss can tear a family a part during desperate circumstances. It’s this commitment to exploring personal relationships that forms the bleak heart of ‘The Witch’, and is perhaps the reason several audience members find themselves unable to appreciate it as an example of traditional horror.
Whereas modern horror emphasises scares over mood, ‘The Witch’ is so committed to developing a lingering atmosphere it often plays like a piece of cinema from an earlier era. While ‘pop’ horror such as the ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ franchises certainly have their appeal, they lack a certain authenticity and heart that makes smaller films such as this stand apart from the pack. Another similar- if admittedly less successful- film that comes to mind is James Watkins’ 2012 adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’, an intensely atmospheric and brooding piece that indulges in its own somber atmosphere (but still can’t resist a false jump scare or two, sadly). Films such as ‘The Witch’ are a clear and aggressive pushback against the schlockier trends the horror genre began to partake in during the 1990’s and 2000’s, and it’s entirely possible it will be recalled as the finest horror film of this current decade (or, at least, the one with the highest artistic credibility). Mark Korven’s string-heavy soundtrack provides another clear example of the film’s resistance against cheap jump scare tactics, the backing score constantly building towards an excruciating crescendo we start to fear will never arrive, masterfully capturing the film’s intensely isolated and hopeless atmosphere. This is a film that is in equal parts torturous and hypnotic, bleak yet darkly beautiful, and it’s ability to overindulge in its somber atmosphere without ever becoming outright depressing (although some may disagree) all work together to create an extraordinary triumph of dread-based horror.
Rating: 4 out of 4.