Set in a New England colony in the early 1700s, before the time of the Salem witch trials, this is a slow burn drama about a family torn apart by witchcraft and demonic possession.
A God-fearing puritanical family is expelled from their community for the sin of “prideful conceit” and forced to fend for themselves by living off the land near a forest. The forest becomes a source of evil, a bit like with the low-budget The Blair Witch Project. The family is tormented by an evil witch who steals their youngest child and sets in motion a terrifying chain of events. Their faith is tested. But is there evil really lurking in the forest or is it all the product of their intense religious devotion and sense of isolation?
Father William (Ralph Ineson, from Kingsman: The Secret Service) is very devout and struggles with their exile. Kate Dickey (from Game Of Thrones) is creepy as Katherine, the family matriarch who slowly loses her mind. Daughter Thomasin (newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to be the voice of reason trying to hold the family together, but is accused of being possessed by a demon and thus responsible for all their misfortune. Meanwhile teenage son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) begins acting strangely, wrestling with pubescent longings.
Shot on a low budget and in minimalist style with a small cast, The Witch deals with themes of religious zealotry, madness, paranoia and superstition, sexual awakening, and explores the fear of the unexplained and the unknown. The film has been written and directed by Robert Eggers, a former production designer making his feature film directorial debut, and is very atmospheric and moody. Eggers has drawn upon actual accounts from the era to shape the film and has also drawn upon some of the darker fairy tales for inspiration. The film also references Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which was set against the backdrop of the Salem witch trials but was actually a thinly veiled criticism of the McCarthy era communist witch hunts of the 50s. Historical detail and costumes are authentic, giving the material a rich sense of realism.
Performances from the small and largely unknown cast are effective. Ineson captures that sense of religious fervour that consumes his character, while Dickey effectively charts that slow progression into madness. Taylor-Joy is a standout as the confused Thomasina, who may or may not be possessed. Newcomer Scrimshaw delivers a more nuanced performance as the adolescent Caleb wrestling with his sexual awakening.
Slow moving and atmospheric without any real scary moments, The Witch is more of a psychological mood piece than a straight out horror film in the grand tradition of The Exorcist, etc, and it lacks the gore of the Saw franchise. But it still manages to get under your skin. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (I Believe In Unicorns, etc) uses natural lighting where possible and gives the film an air of foreboding. His camera remains fairly static throughout. Mark Korven’s discordant string-laden and choral score also adds to the uneasy atmosphere of this nightmarish tableau. Its ending may remind audiences of the original The Wickerman.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television