Movie Review: The Witch

Robert Eggers weaves New England period horror in The Witch
© 2015 A24

The house began to pitch, the goat to twitch…

Some horror fans have complained that The Witch failed to scare them. Too bad for them. It is certainly a horror film, but not one whose pace or tactics will be to everyone’s taste. There are moments of pure shock and horror, but these rely on long periods of foreshadowing and quiet dread to set them up. Something important to note is the opening title card, which announces The Witch as “a New England Folktale.” That is exactly what viewers should go in expecting. The key themes of the film are the reality of frontier life, the dour trappings of superstition, and a lingering ambiguity about where the two might intersect. The Witch is a fanciful, fatalistic yarn that a master storyteller would take an entire evening to tell. As with any story told by candle or campfire light, the more you open yourself to The Witch the more firmly it can grip you. Those hoping for the squirm-a-minute pace of James Wan’s The Conjuring, or even the abstract visceral menace of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, may not find what they want here. Those willing to stew with painful slowness in suspense and paranoia will find their patience well rewarded. The Witch is very scary.

The film opens in an English New World colony, if not the Plymouth Plantation of the 1600s then one very much like it. Ostracized by their neighbors for the extreme zeal of their faith, Brother William (Ralph Ineson) and his family forsake the community and set up a homestead outside its walls, on the edge of a large and sinister forest. Nobody who had ever heard a fairy tale would live near this forest. Still, this family has the convictions of faith and the work ethic to build a farm. They are just beginning to settle into a new life of sanctity and honest toil when one day, the baby goes missing. Something took him away into the woods. William bravely insists that a wolf must be responsible, but the possibility of a witch prowling nearby, in communion with Satan himself, soon becomes hard to dismiss. The little farm displays powerful signs of being cursed, and the rigor of the family doctrine dictates that one of them, through some inward transgression, must have invited the evil.

This is a perfectly cast Puritan family, sober enough to pose for William Dobson or any painter of the 17th century. William and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are weathered and angular, convincing as a couple who have faced lean times with humility and grace. Even their occasional smiles of affection are flinty. Daughter Thomasin (Anya Talyor-Joy) is a tender young blossom, her face shining with promise but with a defensive sharpness to her glance. Son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), heir apparent to his father’s dubious legacy, struggles to master the fearful set of his face. He is a good boy, eager to serve God and his family but increasingly daunted by pitfalls both spiritual and physical. These two are old enough to intuit the approach of danger, even without the capacity to perceive its form. Thomasin at least may grasp that as a budding female on the verge of maturity, she is the most vulnerable to suspicion and chastisement. Meanwhile, the young twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) seem a shade more impish than angelic. Their farmyard games revolve around an unsettling veneration of Black Philip, the family goat.

All these characters are worthy of mention because even the youngest actors do tremendous work. They play an excellent family ensemble despite the challenges of dialogue relentlessly faithful to the period, delivered in North Country accents thicker than tar. Next to these folks the wildest winter savage in Game Of Thrones would sound positively plummy.

After the disappearance of Baby Samuel, grief lingers over the family and casts their whole lives in a forbidding light. What makes The Witch a successful drama is that while its characters are manifestly devout Christians, they are not dull caricatures of repression or religious mania. Despite the strictness of their manners William and Katherine appear to love each other and their children deeply. Their ways are governed as much by practical survival as by religious austerity. Despite the implication that William was cast out of his church for being too orthodox (for other Puritans!), he does not vex his family with sadistic cruelty or the sort of abuse that made Carrie such a bummer at the prom. Any part he may play in dooming them will come through the insidious power of good intentions. At the beginning of the film, William’s peers rebuke him for the sin of pride, and throughout the story this pride prevents him from admitting his secret doubts, and from indulging those of his wife and children. Hardship fosters and magnifies the secrets they keep from one another, weakening them against malign influences from outside. Director Robert Eggers takes prudent steps to show the cracks in a family unit under the realistic stresses of frontier life, which makes the threat of their demise not only terrifying but tragic. The script treats them with humanity and respect, engaging their moral outlook critically without mocking them. There is room for those who hold with the tenets of Christianity or another established faith, as well as those who do not, to appreciate the drama.

The film is lovely to watch, full of primeval trees and the muted colors of earth and homespun modesty. The occasional appearance of more vivid tones (red, for example) creates moments of shocking contrast. Simulating the limited light sources of the time, Eggers creates a doubly discomfiting environment. By day the diffuse light of the sun shines everywhere except the woods. Corruption has no obvious hiding place around the farm, yet each character continues to study others for its telltale signs. By night, candles and lanterns reveal only nervous faces while sharply rendered shadows mask large parts of the frame where any dark thing might lurk.

For those not yet enticed by the artful composition and sophisticated approach to terror, there are a surprising number of good moral lessons in The Witch as well, but be prepared to witness characters reaping their consequences rather than enjoying their rewards. A liar will not believe the words of others. The devil comes in disguise. Pride goes before destruction. And seriously, don’t go in the damned woods.