Released: February 19, 2016. Director: Robert Eggers. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Inseson, Kate Dickie. Runtime: 1hr 33 min.
Filmed in the small Ontario town of Mattawa, The Witch is an astounding venture into psychological horror from feature debut director Robert Eggers.
The film’s 1630’s New England setting is a perfect fit for the compelling narrative, inspired by America’s first witch hysteria – where dialogue is taken from diaries and folk tales of the time, which capture the time’s essence.
Also capturing the realistic portrayal is the set and production design. Writer-director Eggers seemed to be an asset to the film because he has had experience with art direction, production and costume design. I assume his experience with that complemented his vision.
The time period was perfect for the artistic tale which I saw as an experiment of how fear of something new – witchcraft – can provoke situations to a boiling point.
The feature concerns a Puritan family whose beliefs clash with their plantation. They’re then banished and they move to a farmhouse bordering the eerie wilderness, which is said to be the home of a witch and other strange forces, like creepy hares and ravens.
After the family’s baby Samuel is taken, they suspect their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) of being impure and practicing the occult, leading the mother to believe they’re plainly cursed.
The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) exemplifies the family’s grief and is a main source of poignancy – adding a family drama aspect. The patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) performs well, attempting to keep his family intact through hectic occurrences.
Besides strong performances, there are also compelling, realistic characters. Eggers uses them to express impurity and insanity and always real, raw emotions.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin shows promise, showing great range when facing extreme accusations from her family. She has a chilling moment when her face drops at her baby brother disappearing in a scary game of Peek-a-Boo. Harvey Scrimshaw also shines as Caleb in a defining scene.
The cast carry it well through horror and wicked family drama. It’s like a derailment into insanity, with threats of black magic. The Woods itself is a notable aspect.
To me, it’s a character in itself – like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There’s a dread when characters enter the forest. The Witch is not frightening the way modern horror films are.
There’s no reliance on jump scares and it utilizes atmosphere and concept to terrorize audiences. My eyes widened so much, I thought my face would freeze that way.
The score is wholly unnerving. It effectively utilizes music and sound to instill fear into audiences. As the score heightens, some might wait for a jump scare – but it’s all about the discomfort it brings to the viewer, and the fear of the unknown it invites. Mark Korven’s score makes the film what it is – showing that a horror film requires great music to make it stand out.
Eggers brings a unique vision to the witchcraft genre. His sense of storytelling and his direction of raw horror is refreshing. While this never made me cover my eyes, I’ve rarely felt so consistently unsettled through something this intense. I think I didn’t cover my eyes was because I didn’t want to miss a frame of the beautiful film.
The way cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots the feature stuns. Creative angles also make certain images look chilling – even if they would look simplistic in another’s hands. With Blaschke, there’s malevolence in every shot. The nighttime shots frighten, especially when we’re placed in the woods. The way the camera panned into the Woods’ belly was unnerving.
The feature’s main flaw was the way the characters talked – where their dialogue’s meaning was sometimes confusing. I’d likely have to read the screenplay to get the full essence of the themes.
This isn’t for everyone. It’s slow and rewards patient viewers. It’s a treat for genre fans. Though, it isn’t for those who define a film’s scariness through amount of jump scares.
For me, it was an astounding feature debut that immerses, and Eggers’ superbly crafted tale makes it look like he has been scaring audiences for years.