Writer-director Robert Eggers’ indie film, The Witch – winner of best debut feature at 2015’s BFI London Film Festival – is a horror film and no mistake. But after an initial bold reveal you soon forget this and become swept up in the atmosphere and unfolding family drama… and so the horror that had lain under the surface slowly creeps up on you for an unrelenting fiery climax. This is a sneaky horror film.
The story is seen through the eyes of Thomasin (an excellent feature debut from Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage girl whose devout parents have been banished from the town and forced to set up home on the edge of the woods, where they must try to eke out an existence from the land and provide for their four children and new baby. When the baby goes missing under Thomasin’s care she’s accused of witchcraft by her younger siblings, who are seemingly spurred on by the words of Black Philip, the family goat. Crops soon fail, animals go missing, the children start acting strangely – and all fingers point to the eldest daughter. Thomasin seems to be situated in the deceptively calm eye of a storm, witnessing each member of her family suffer their own physical and mental squalls as they wrestle with poverty, loss, puberty or the dangers of an overactive imagination. Their modest farmhouse becomes a flimsy boat facing the jagged edges of ominous woodland in an ocean of grass, miles from the help of the townsfolk.
Eggers combines pleasingly rich detail from folklore (rhymes, symbolic creatures and omens) with an impressive sense of historical accuracy – right down to the surprisingly accessible old English dialogue. Not surprising, then, that his film is subtitled ‘A New-England Folktale’ and that he grew up in New England himself and would go to Salem every Halloween to scare himself and his friends senseless. The events of The Witch are also based on historical accounts of witch trials and regional records from the 17th century, all collected and pored over by Eggers in the years running up to shooting his film. This attention to detail clearly comes from his past as a production designer for film and theatre, where research and visual references are key to convincing audiences that they’ve stumbled into another world.
This world of The Witch is firmly inhabited – claimed even – by just a handful of actors, each giving fine performances as a family driven to madness. Ralph Ineson is particularly watchable as the put-upon patriarch who first loves his children and later fears them, while Taylor-Joy dominates the screen with merely the flick of her eye or a sweep of hair. The film’s earthy use of language is matched by its muted colours, beautifully shot shadowy vistas and the throaty swell of a choral-heavy score. All of this combines to form a brooding blanket that envelops us as we hunker down and await, with growing dread, the dark denouement. As Eggers conjures it, we follow Thomasin to her destiny and (perhaps perversely) are invited to revel in it alongside her. Don’t expect classic jump-out-of-your-seat scares or gore in this horror film, but do prepare for a super[natural] treat.