Genre: Horror, Thriller
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Release Date: February 19th, 2016
As the new drama The Witch begins, healing the text “A New England folktale” appears on the screen. The words are both an introduction and a premonition of what is to come. What unfolds over the course of the next ninety-two minutes is an old-fashioned and absolutely intense experience where the viewer will oftentimes be shaken by surprising plot developments.
This is a film that keeps the viewer wary and worried about what is to come.
It all starts when an intensely religious family is kicked off a Puritan plantation in the early 1600s. “Take your leave and trouble us no farther,” a public official commands William (Ralph Ineson), the family’s leader. William then moves his family into a desolate cabin, where they are surrounded by woods and a dark presence that slowly presents itself to them.
Their peaceful life seemingly becomes cursed when supernatural occurrences shake their core belief system. William’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) newborn son Samuel mysteriously disappears. The couple’s twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) begin communicating silently with a goat named Black Phillip. The family’s son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) goes on a walk in the woods with his sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), only to go missing and then return with a mysterious ailment.
The family’s grip on reality begins coming apart as their tragic misfortunes ratchet up. “We never should have left the plantation,” Katherine states.
Writer/director Robert Eggers, who previously worked as a production designer and a costume designer, dramatically captures the tension and alarm that slowly overcomes this family. Instead of relying on horror tropes, he crafts an original story here and keeps the title character – the mysterious witch that haunts the woods — off-screen for most of the proceedings.
Like The Blair Witch Project in 1999, this film builds its anxiety and fear not by focusing on the “witch” at the heart of the story. These films focus on the repercussions of the witch’s actions and how the characters who bear witness to the horrors react.
In that sense, Katherine becomes one of the most dangerous characters here as she becomes overwhelmed with fear that her children have fallen into witchcraft. William is the leader of the family but Katherine seems to be the tortured soul of it and she brings a sense of paranoia into the once-loving family. After her baby disappears, she becomes violently unhinged looking for answers anywhere she can and questioning the values of everyone around her like one of the frantic women from The Crucible.
“Does this not look like witchcraft?” she asks about some strange behavior, seemingly unaware of how crazed she’s become to everyone around her.
In its final moments, The Witch fulfills its potential as a unique, anxiety-driven and tremendously creepy tale. The feature doesn’t offer the same typical scare moments we’ve seen before in horror movies and it deserves great credit for that. This is a movie where anything can happen because the story doesn’t follow traditional tropes of the genre. A sickening tense sequence showing Caleb acting abnormally in sickness is a perfect example of how this story charts its own dramatic path.
At any moment, in any seemingly-innocuous situation, anything can happen here and that’s a feeling that helps The Witch truly stand out.
Review by: John Hanlon