The Witch (2016, dir. Robert Eggers), also known as The VVitch, or The VVitch: A New England Folktale, is a horror film set within a period drama set within the Puritanical beliefs of New England in the 1600s, where persecution of women for being ‘witches’ was rife. After it received a fair amount of hype after its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and after watching its creepily magnificent trailer, The Witch is a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing for quite some time. Is it worth paying a ticket to see it at the cinema, though? Its synopsis is as follows:
A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession. (source)
Sounds simple enough. And it really is. After watching my fair share of crappy found footage horror films that try so hard to frighten their viewers, it is so refreshing to watch a horror film that has you on the edge of your seat without really trying. I am particularly happy to report that there are few to none jump scares that I can remember. Tension is built in a natural manner as the story itself escalates; as strange events begin occurring, as characters lose trust in one another, as creepy children begin acting in increasingly creepy ways. The whole story is told in such a simple and focused manner – we’re concerned with our character’s survival, as are the characters themselves. What begins as a simple, non-witch-like trick by an older sister escalates and becomes a huge problem, given the Puritan beliefs of the family. We soon come to know that seemingly everything is against this family; nature, a lack of survival skills, deteriorating mental health, increasingly strange occurrences, and the religious threat of witches who seemed to be blamed for most things at the time.
The story of The Witch is not only impressively told, but it is also impressively acted. Stand-outs are Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson as mother Katherine and father William respectively; both actors from Game of Thrones, a particular favourite of mine. Kate Dickie is so perfect as a fierce mother, mirroring her role on Game of Thrones as the perpetually breastfeeding Lysa Arryn. Her ferocity contributes to the fear of her children, thereby increasing the threat and fear of the audience also. Harvey Scrimshaw as middle child Caleb is also a highlight, particularly as the story hits peak terror. But my ultimate acting highlight in this film is relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, whose portrayal of Thomasin as an innocent, wide-eyed victim was stunning. Thomasin makes the mistake of making a joke with her siblings, and is severely punished for it. But it is by the film’s conclusion that you witness Anya Taylor-Joy’s genius in portraying this character. The film is steeped in misery and bleakness, such that by the film’s conclusion you feel the littlest bit of relief for Thomasin. The script helps along with the fantastic acting, with authentic language from 1600s, in addition to original accents of those newly arrived to the promised land of America.
It also helps that the direction by Robert Eggers is absolutely perfect. All throughout this film, you sense the looming terror of the forest that surrounds our exiled characters. We don’t need to be told that they’re unsafe; as events escalate, as failures of survival compound the horror experienced by our protagonist Thomasin. These feeling of a lack of safety is underscored by direction which seems to slowly suck both the audience and the characters towards the forest, a slow zoom towards the trees that feels like you’re being pulled in. It’s the little things that get you – a young man pulling apart an animal trap that could close at any point, a game of peek-a-boo with a baby that would normally be innocent play between siblings, and ferocious wood chopping by a father whose anger is overwhelming. All of these activities are met by atmospheric music and the occasional sounds of a discordant choir.
Whilst watching The Witch, I definitely felt some déjà vu for a film called Häxan (1922), which is a must-see for those interested in the topic of witches. All in all, The Witch is a marvel. Watching this film is all about sitting within the creepiness of the family dynamics, and the creepiness of the situation that the family are in; being immersed in the story as much as the family are immersed in the dark, foreboding forest. The Witch is chilling, atmospheric, and very scary indeed. This is one horror film that you cannot miss seeing at the cinema.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Yes.
Watch the trailer here.