Director Robert Eggers Screenwriter Robert Eggers Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie Country Of Origin USA-Canada Running Time 90 mins UK Distribution Universal
Category: First Feature Competition
One of the most anticipated films of the London Film Festival this year due to the speechless reaction it garnered from its premiere at Sundance, THE WITCH held the entire 344-seat screening room in spellbound silence for an hour and a half.
Weighted with a similar uncanny atmosphere as THE SHINING, Eggers executes THE WITCH with impeccable timing and keeps actual visual moments of horror to a minimum. Instead, all the focus is on the strange eeriness and depth of meaning you find in such a beautiful, barren landscape that is studded with oddities. We open in 17th Century New England as a family are being banished from their plantation, forcing them to uproot and move to a remote little farm on the edge of a forest. They are deeply religious Christians, and in such an isolated setting, where they must battle the gruelling elements to be self sufficient on a daily basis, they cling to their faith with an increasingly manic intensity.
Tragedy befalls them almost instantly. The youngest child, Samuel, is abducted whilst under the watch of the eldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Family relations begin to crack under the pressure of surviving and grief. Paranoia and blame spreads through the farm like an unstoppable curse, and they become increasingly terrified that black magic is at work not just from within the dense forbidden woods but within the family itself.
THE WITCH works on a simplistic formula often employed by horror films with religion as the central theme: unspeakable tragedy + a predisposition towards piety = an invitation to the devil. The family are systematically broken down through circumstance and, as they descend into paranoia, seek answers in the Bible. But their religious devotion is warped by their trauma and becomes the agent of their undoing as they seek out the many form-taking devil in each other.
Here is the greatest strength of Egger’s film: there is no one clear direction from which the evil is being generated which makes it all the more terrifying. A myriad of outstanding performances from every member of the cast keeps suspicion darting around like a headless chicken right up until the final moment. Kate Dickie is both maternal and threatening as the bereaved mother, and Ralph Ineson gives an emotional performance as her failing husband, unable to support his family or find their child. But this film belongs to siblings Thomasin and Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the latter of whom is the star of an utterly chilling possession scene to rival THE EXORCIST and who proves that even the purest minds with the best intentions can be polluted at times.
Anya Taylor-Joy, a rustic blonde beauty and relatively unknown, plays the complex lead role with naive innocence and key hints of controlled mischief. Although there is no clear answer to who even the witch of THE WITCH is, what is certain and more important to grasp is that the character of Thomasin embodies the unstoppable force of devilish desire – even if she doesn’t know it herself.
Responsible for much of the jarring atmosphere is the painstakingly accurate production design by Craig Lathrop, rural and cold and bare, which evokes physical hardship instantly, and Mark Koven’s truly haunting score. Aside from everything else, this is a wholly visceral experience that tantalises your senses at every turn. Amongst the many symbolic apparitions of strange goings on that we see, which may or may not be figments of the family’s imagination, the most effective is the emblematic black goat, ‘Black Philip’, another possible vessel for evil, and a nod from Eggers to the fact that goats have long been associated with the devil.
Egger’s psychologically disturbing pre-Salem witch trials historical thriller takes us way back to a time before special effects and torture porn, when horror was bred in the mind. This is without a doubt the scariest film you’ll see for a long, long time.
The Final Word: Eggers is the new Kubrick and we’ve waited a long time for him. Roll on his remake of NOSFERATU.
THE WITCH had its BFI London Film Festival premiere on Monday 12th October.