The latest in a line of movies breathing new life into the supernatural horror genre, The Witch is a remarkably assured debut from writer and director Robert Eggers. Favouring atmosphere and tension over visceral thrills, The Witch is a powerful and disturbing film about the hardships of faith and the frailty of the human condition.
Beginning with their excommunication from a colonial plantation in the year 1630, a family led by imposing patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) are forced to make their solitary home in the untamed wilderness of New England. Almost immediately, strange happenings plague their home, and the sudden disappearance of their youngest child causes rifts to appear between themselves and their fearsome puritan God.
The Witch combines the superstitious dread of the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne with the threatening omniscience of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick to brilliant effect. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, full of strong juxtaposition, disorienting zooms and grey, intimidating images creates an immediate impression of lurking horror that never lets up.
A superb cast also help to make this a uniquely memorable film experience. The aforementioned Ineson finds a strong and complex balance between fatherly tenderness and the hardness of his faith, and Kate Dickie strikes a strong emotional chord as his wife Katharine even while in the throes of grief-stricken hysterics. Relative newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw – as the film’s protagonist Thomasin and her brother Caleb respectively – are absolute revelations, giving performances that dig deep into the darkest recesses of the human soul.
The character of Thomasin is a fascinating and unusual one within the horror genre. Her wide eyes and meek appearance belie a remarkable strength of character and rebellious spirit that Taylor-Joy captures beautifully. As the nexus point of a profound conflation of heroine and villainess, she is largely what makes this one of the most original horror movies in year.
The Witch is full of eloquent and effective symbolism, particularly regarding women and their bodies, as well as a strong push-and-pull between the natural world and the “civilised” - between humans and animals. Everything right down to noted composer Mark Korven’s score, which combines traditional puritan songs with howling, discordant strings, is suffused with the same tension, restraint and release. Even the cast’s performances are directed and utilised so effectively that their strong accents and archaic vocabulary don’t get in the way of The Witch’s stunning narrative.
Despite its historical setting, The Witch is a film that resonates strongly. It is a film about hypocrisy, about the collapse of order, and about the suppression of human nature. It offers no easy answers, but following its breathtaking conclusion, this shocking and purposeful film will have you pondering it for days afterwards and aching to return to its terrible power.
The Witch opens exclusive to Dendy Cinemas next Thursday March 17th.