There is power in the monster, the creature, the vast unknown that troubles the human psyche. At the root of horror fiction are basic, primal, irrational fears that storytellers seek to exploit in the most effective way possible. One method is to employ a creature or monster or mythological figure whose basic properties and attributes are well known, using archetypal monsters to get to audiences’ fear centers that much faster and easier. Recently, four creatures have dominated pop culture in particular: the vampire, the werewolf, the zombie, and the ghost (or some variation thereof with regards to hauntings). In each case, the usage of the creatures has varied to fit multiple tones, themes, and genres, anywhere from comedy to children’s film to action movie to horror. Even though the creatures are ubiquitous in the culture, they’re popular enough and strong enough as concepts that should a filmmaker wish, terror can still be found within them.
So what, then, of the witch? While still prevalent in pop culture, the majority of witch stories tend to lean toward the fantasy genre, with witches acting as sorcerers be they benign or indifferent or evil. The popularity of decades-old TV classic Bewitched still holds sway, as many romantic comedies still revel in that shows’ usage of the witch as a figure in magical realism. Even The Wizard of Oz‘s famous Wicked Witch of the West has been given a sympathetic portrayal in the still immensely popular musicalWicked. The witch, then, is a monster who hasn’t been portrayed very monstrously in a very long time, perhaps because the cultural landscape has merely moved on to other fascinations and fears, but also perhaps due to this country’s sad legacy of witch trials in New England around the 17th century. Robert Eggers’ brilliant new film, The Witch seeks to address all those issues and bring the horror of the witch figure howling back to pop culture, and it does so masterfully.
Like every great horror story (or, indeed, folk tale, as the film’s subtitle puts it) the setup is exceedingly simple. Puritan patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) is responsible for angering the plantation community he and his family live in, and pridefully chooses banishment to the countryside rather than stay. He, his wife Kate (Kate Dickie), young twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger), preteen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), along with their newborn, make their home at the edge of a large, foreboding wood. Soon enough, the crops fail, the goats start giving blood instead of milk, and the newborn baby is stolen, taken into the woods by a rather gnarly old woman. The family deals with the escalating horrors by attempting to double down on their faith, as William is the radical religious type, but each have their secrets that threaten to tear the family apart as they’re revealed, with or without the help of a witch.
Even though this is Eggers’ first film, his attention to detail pervades the movie, giving it a palpable richness and texture that transports the audience to 1630 and heightens the immediacy of the terror at hand. Eggers rose up through the ranks as a production designer, and everything from the costumes to the sets to the props feel absolutely authentic, giving life to the period. If it wouldn’t disturb the students and get the teachers fired, The Witch could almost be shown in high school history classes as an example of the times. Although the film presents the hardships and squalor of country living as the period would have it, Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blashke shoot it like a painting, or perhaps more accurately, a woodcutting, showing off some all-time gorgeous shots. Film blogs and Twitter accounts will be posting and sharing the film’s exquisite close up shots for decades to come, not just for their aesthetic beauty but for the implied terror just out of frame that they conceal.
Since the film’s Sundance premiere last year, the buzz around the film has grown (some might say it’s been overhyped, which is not the film’s problem, even though I believe it can stand up to it). Many films and filmmakers have been counted among The Witch‘s antecedents, but up to now I haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s name mentioned. To my mind, the slow burn yet always escalating nature of the film, along with the masterful compositions, best approximate Kubrick’s The Shining. In the movie’s DNA also resides the satanic histrionics of Richard Donner’s The Omen, and one possession sequence not only recalls the verisimilitude William Friedkin brought to The Exorcist, but puts the recent glut of “possession/exorcism” movies to shame by having the terror in the scene be conveyed (as far as I could tell) without visual effects and completely through performance.
Those performances are so good, no effects of any sort are needed (though the film does have a few), since the cast as a whole are excellent. Casting relative unknowns not only allows the terror of the tale more effectiveness, but has the payoff of the best people for the job being able to give deep, rich, lived in performances. Ineson and Dickie feel transported from the period, Harvey Scrimshaw is jaw-droppingly good as Caleb for an actor as young as he is, and if Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t get her own YA franchise series after this, I’ll be shocked.
After all that, there’s probably one last question you may have: is it scary? As always, that question is hopelessly subjective, as one person’s terrifying is another person’s tame. It’s true that the film isn’t after the date night cheapo jump scare crowd, opting for something much more unsettling, a creep that burrows underneath your skin, perhaps not affecting you right away but hatching when you’re alone at night, walking through the woods. At that, the film has a remarkable power, letting one’s imagination conjure up what the characters may be seeing–and speaking to–just out of frame. The fear factor is multiplied by Mark Korven’s textured score, subtle throughout…until it isn’t, going straight for the throat.
Initially, the film seems to be geared completely toward terrifying the audience, that it seems it may not be any deeper than telling the tale of a pious family led to ruin, by their own hand as much as an agent of evil’s. But look deeper, and there’s a parable, a folk tale as the film would have it, about the horror and pain of religion and virtue versus the naked freedom of wickedness. The characters in the film seek redemption, release, and escape from their woes and sins, and the final scenes have an answer. Not since the ending of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has relieved ecstasy been so chilling. The Witch has many layers to it, and it reveals them (to borrow a word)…deliciously.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Feb. 20th, 2016.