The Witch has been described as a ‘horror’ film however to think of it simply as a horror film is to do a disservice to what is a deeply fascinating and disturbing character study of a Puritan family with indeed some horrific elements. It is the directorial debut from Robert Eggers who both wrote and directed the film. Eggers has done a fantastic job in crafting a horror film unlike any other horror film in recent years. As a casual watcher of horror films, I’m not keen on the recent trend of jump-scare and shock value horror films which has crowded the market in the past decade. I’m more inclined to films which can be more than just scares but also dare to explore deeper themes and ideas. My favourite horror films are The Shining and Psycho, both of which are more of psychological dramas with disturbing and horrific elements which arise from the story. In the past few years, a number of films has emerged and follow this style of horror notably The Babadook and It Follows both released in 2014. Although, both films are fantastic Eggers in fact does not follow the style of The Babadook or It Follows, instead Eggers has created a film of a wholly different ilk. Although, The Babadook and It Follows can be described as psychological horror films they still follow traditional horror conventions more closely than The Witch. However, The Witch bares more similarity to The Shining and Psycho and Robert Eggers follows in the footsteps of Kubrick and Hitchcock.
Robert Eggers has acknowledged that he was influenced by The Shining whilst making The Witch and it is apparent in the plot; a family in an isolated location for an extended period of time encountering supernatural forces it could feel like Eggers is treading the same waters but the film still feels very much like it’s own beast. Subtitled A New England Folktale, the film is set in the 17th century and follows a Puritan family encountering forces of evil in the woods beyond their New England farm, forces which may be either real or imagined. Eggers asks a modern audience for a massive suspension of disbelief. Clearly the modern cinema-going demographic still crave horror films and wanted to be scared but The Witch yanks that expectation from under the rug horror fans were clinging to. I saw it at late night screening and was not expecting the screening room to be filled with good number of spectators. However not long into the film, the dialogue consisting of early modern English procured a scattering of nervous and confused laughs as the sense of paranoia heightens. A typical hardcore horror film fan may not be satisfied with The Witch if they go in expecting a typical horror film. The Witch is far from a typical horror film, it isn’t typical for any genre.
The Witch begins with the family being excommunicated from a Puritan Christian plantation in New England. It is no coincidence why it’s set in the 17th century and follows a Puritan family. The historical details of the time and place informs the characters and allows the audience to suspend their disbelief about their actions. The Witch can be compared to the 1953 play The Crucible written by Arthur Miller.It is a partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Province of Massachusetts Bay during 1692 and 1693 and serves as an allegory of McCarthyism. Both stories involving the superstition of witches is an obvious comparison but they are also both superb character studies. I am not surprised that the screening I attended had some spectators laughing at what seems like a silly superstition to secular 21st century audiences. For The Witch to achieve its full effect it needs audiences regardless of beliefs to believe in the characters and understand the motivations for their actions.
The cast of The Witch does a stellar job in helping the audience achieve this. The patriarch of the Puritan family is William (Ralph Ineson) and Ineson gives a great performance to portraying the conflicted man.There is a scene where William is chopping wood, a seemingly innocuous activity, but cut with tracking shots of the woods and a haunting, ominous score help to convey an incredible build-up of tension. Although, the location of the farm and the woods are plain looking the film is wonderfully crafted and uses the landscape to its advantage. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke guides us through the New England farm and woods through the use of smooth tracking shots. The landscape shots and shots of the woods although stunning created a sense of dread in me. There were used like recurring motifs, if there is a slow moving tracking shot through the barren wintry woods I was expecting horror lurking around the corner. In addition, the eerie non-diegetic score composed by Mark Koven paired with these scenes helped to amplify the impending sense of dread conveyed throughout.
The rest of the family consists of wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fraternal twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and last but not least in a star-making role Black Phillip (Wahab Chaudhry). Black Philip is a goat. No slight to Black Philip, the rascal, but the true star of The Witch is Anya Taylor-Joy who gives a powerful, honest and incredible performance in her first film role and leading role. The entire cast gives very good and strong performances in The Witch but Anya Taylor-Joy’s was outstanding and the most believable. The Witch is a psychological drama about the paranoia of a Puritan family and a character study and I believed Thomasin the most.
In conclusion, yes, The Witch is creepy and horrific but it is so much more. It is a psychological and historical drama, a rich character study exploring the motivations behind actions and the effect of paranoia. It does have some scary scenes but instead it will leave you with an exhilarating feeling, confused and questioning long after you’ve left the cinema screen rather than a momentary instinctive jump in your seat. Personally, I think the lasting effect is worth so much more.
Written by Emmanuel Omodeinde