"What went we out into this wilderness to find", says patriarch Will at the beginning of Robert Eggers' spine-chilling debut feature The Witch. Anyone still smarting almost 20 years later over the complete lack of any witch sightings in The Blair Witch Project can rest assured that The Witch is not nearly as coy about revealing its scary woman in the woods. It may be a slow burner, but it builds to a crescendo that might very well give many horror fans a little too much full frontal witchery at the expense of some far more interesting earlier ambiguity.
A strict Christian family are banished from their plantation in 17th century New England; William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), their four children and brand new baby boy. Settling on the edge of a dark forest, their crops will not grow and hunting in the woods results in no meat. Then, baby Sam mysteriously disappears without a trace while under the watch of oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Despair and desperation soon take hold of the family, leading to paranoia and a further descent into pious babbling. Eggers makes it clear that there is something wicked in the woods, but The Witch explores how innocent the family are themselves.
Beautifully created and lovingly crafted, The Witch is a transporting experience at its best. With Jacobean language taken from period journals and other records and incredibly evocative production design, The Witch feels all too real, even as supernatural elements are introduced. With its actors speaking in Northern English accents and the largely domestic setting, The Witch is like a kitchen sink slice of Brit-grit realism, except instead of arguing around kitchen sinks, the family are at each others’ throats while they milk goats.
The religious fervour of the time (it’s set shortly before the Salem witch trials kick-off and killing wise women became a favourite pastime of the church) bleeds into every exchange of dialogue. Patriarch Will is unable to reassure his son Caleb of a place in heaven, while the ease with which he and his wife can turn on their own daughter is awfully believable. There is a constant atmosphere of dread; by day it’s mostly the doom and gloom of sinful confessions and the fear of burning in hell and by night, Eggers really unleashes the fear.
Every creak of the trees, every sound of the wind or the goats outside can be amplified into utter terror. Eggers makes it clear that no one is safe from the get-go. And though he saves most of the revelation for the final scene, when we do get glimpses of the witch, or the possible voice of Lucifer himself, it’s hard not to shriek. In its most tense moments, The Witch is wickedly frightening. Eggers constantly cuts on loud noises like axes chopping wood in order to never let you give your clenched buttocks a rest.
The leads are all excellent, from the creepy twin kids to the more challenging roles of Caleb and Thomasin, but best of all are Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as the parents of the clan. Committed and conflicted, they savour the opportunity to deliver Eggers’ terrific ye olde English script.
The Witch is expertly directed with a hysterical score, beautiful production design and wicked performances from its central cast. Truly spine-chilling when at its most ambiguous, it only stumbles slightly in its final scene.
THE WITCH / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ROBERT EGGERS / STARRING: ANNA TAYLOR-JOY, RALPH INESON, KATE DICKIE / RELEASE DATE: TBC
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10