What is scariest to me – at least when it comes to film – is not always blood and gore. Nor is it always a jump scare, thought I’ll be the first to admit that I fall for many of the most obvious ones. No, what scares me most is often a still image. Knowing a threat is there, and then seeing it. A shape, far away, dimly lit, but staring straight at you. Incomprehensible, fleshy masses that twitch and writhe. The mundane giving way to a dimension that physically manifests a true, unknowable evil. Fear made flesh.
When I first saw the trailer for The Witch (or, as it’s spelled on the poster, The VVitch,) it seemed like it would be right up my alley. There seems to be something of a renaissance of sorts going on in independent horror, with the likes of The Babadook and It Follows (and to a lesser extent more mainstream films like The Woman in Black and the Insidious series), relying less on out-and-out gore and creatures and more on sound design, empty spaces in a frame, and the context and relationships between characters and their environments to terrify audiences. I think this is a trend that is all for the better, and with images of goats giving blood instead of milk and quotes from critics like, “It feels like we are watching something we should not be seeing,” I was ready for The Witch to give me several sleepless nights.
(Fun aside: you don’t want to try and sleep through a fever two days after watching Jacob’s Ladder, as I did.)
Interestingly, The Witch doesn’t describe itself as a horror film, but as a ‘New England Folktale.’ Furthermore, The Witch doesn’t really focus very much on its titular threat, though she certainly makes her presence known. Really, The Witch is more akin to a character study, the story of a family beginning to collapse in on itself with heavy horror elements layered throughout.
Set in the 1630s at the dawn of the European settlement of America, the film opens with farmer William (Game of Thrones veteran, Ralph Ineson, who in certain moments resembles Geoffrey Rush) standing trial before a jury of Pilgrims. He states they cannot judge him for they are not Christian enough. When told he will have to leave the settlement to brave the woods if he will not face trial, William essentially says “Fuck you, you can’t fire me, I quit!” and moves his family a day’s ride away. Several months later, things are not going well. William’s crop of corn is consistently blighted, and he doesn’t know how to hunt. In the midst of puberty and miles away from other girls his own age, eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) finds his eyes constantly floating towards the neckline of his older sister, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy, a spitting image of Elle Fanning.) Toddler twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson, respectively) spend their days talking to a goat named ‘Black Phillip.’ And worst of all, one afternoon when Tomasin is playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with newborn Samuel, she opens her eyes to find he has literally disappeared from under her. Their mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie, another Game of Thrones alum, so good I didn’t recognize her here,) blames Thomasin for Samuel’s disappearance. William claims that a wolf must’ve stolen Samuel. Mercy cruelly teases Thomasin that Samuel disappeared because of her, that she is the fabled ‘Witch of Woods.’ Caleb wonders why God would take Samuel away when he was only a baby, and is he in Hell because he wasn’t baptized in the Church, and what do you mean this happened because we were ungrateful of God’s gifts? Clearly, the seeds of dissent have been set.
The Witch is the debut feature of writer-director Robert Eggers (a former production designer, which explains the film’s extraordinary historical detail), and it is confident, assured, and very ambitious. A title card after the feature says the film is directly inspired by the transcriptions of many witch trials of the era, and that is reflected in the dialogue itself, filled with thy’s, thou’s, thee’s, and sentence structures that no longer reflect how audiences speak today. Like good Shakespeare, the actors deliver these lines with absolute authenticity. They sound like actual people from the actual time actually saying these things. The unfortunate side effect of that is their New England accents are still very much ‘England,’ so thick that you’ll miss what they’re saying at times. Still, the intention mostly shines through.
Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is suitably bleak, making Massachusetts (I assume) look like a gray, irradiated fallout zone. It feels like a more restrained version of The Revenant, seemingly shot using natural light, and using negative space to frame the characters in positions that make them seem frail and vulnerable, both to the supernatural threat around them and their fracturing sanity.
The actors deserve a lot of credit for carrying The Witch through its middle half, where things slow down considerably. The film starts off incredibly strong, swiftly moving from the initial setup to ominous shots of the woods, Mark Korven’s minimalist, discordant score swelling with intensity anytime a character so much as glances at a treeline. It hits its first horror beat within the first ten minutes, and it’s suitably gruesome without being exploitative. But at around the 45-minute mark, I realized the spookiness had slowly taken a backseat to the characters pontificating about their ‘Job of the Bible’ circumstances, and try as I might, the film began to drag me. I feel bad for complaining that The Witch is not exactly the movie I expected it to be, and I would like to give it a second viewing. Eggers clearly has a lot on his mind, not just trying to scare the pants off you but also trying to say a lot about the dangers of evangelicalism, and about the patriarchal strictures placed on women at the time and how they’re reflected today.
On the other hand, I suspect The Witch might just work better as a flat-out horror movie. When the scariness returns, it does so in a spectacular fashion. At its most transcendent – which is to say its most terrifying – The Witch truly taps into something primordial on the fear scale. More than once, I sank into my chair, trying to back away, whispering to myself, “What in the fuck am I even looking at?!” That Eggers accomplishes this in his first feature is a sign of only good things to come – and hopefully something that makes me afraid of turning out the lights at night…