A recent spate of great horror films like The Babadook, It Follows, and now, The Witch are films that transcend the horror genre to become something much more cerebral and complex than genre films tend to dictate. When films seek to be more than the genre and aspire for art first, as is the case in Robert Eggers directorial debut, this is when films break free from restricting genre conventions. They explore the lengths of what the horrifying may be, with refreshing new perspectives, entwined with profound psychology while at the same time eschewing modern horror tropes and formulas.
The Witch is set to the Puritan clamp of 17th century New England, where a family is banished from their pious community due to a disagreement of belief which forces them to the fringes of society. In their remote abode at the edge of a dark forest, the family finds a comfort in their solitude, keeping themselves busy with work and the word of God.
William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are the parents of five children: their newborn Samuel, fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), a coming-of-age Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and eldest–growing into her role as a woman– Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). On a day like any other Thomasin plays an innocent game of peekaboo with baby Samuel that results in his unexplained disappearance. I should say that the circumstances are mysterious to the family as we, the audience, are shown immediately after the disappearance, the fate of poor Samuel. Needless to say, it ends in his death by a witch in a bloody ritual, in one of the first eerie and truly unsettling moments of the film.
Katherine weeps for days and days, praying for the unbaptized soul of Samuel and blames Thomasin for his disappearance. In this moment of despair, Caleb asks whether it is fair that an unbaptized baby is unjustifiably damned to hell. The Witch questions many of these Christian beliefs and presents them as restricting with the film’s time-period alluding to the religious disconnect between the modern and scripture– questioning outdated modes of thought.
The disappearance of Samuel is the film’s emotional crux which explores the dynamic of a family trying to understand the world around them in tandem with their religious beliefs and knowledge. To make matters worse, Thomasin is transitioning into womanhood; she’s in that awkward phase where she is fetishizied for her youth yet reviled for it as well– the whore and madonna. Her brother Caleb begins to coyly notice her breast, while her mother seeks to get rid of her to another family and blames her for anything she can. Matters don’t get better for Thomasin when she jokingly scares the twins into believing she is the witch responsible for Samuel’s disappearance. This jest doesn’t go as planned and Thomasin’s faith in God goes under heavy scrutiny.
Through its religious focus the film makes the connection between the restricting nature of religion and how it affects and restrains the woman. The story confines its women to the home, and when Thomasin is out, only bad things– like the disappearance of Samuel– happen. The men share moments of limited freedom and camaraderie as they explore the nearby forest, but are still circumscribed by the laws of God. By the end, the film has made the argument that, whatever lies in the forest, is maybe a better alternative to the life that these characters live.
The Witch is perhaps the best horror film in the last 20 years, maybe even longer. Beautifully shot and accompanied by an unsettling amalgam of music (Mark Korven) and sounds the film is a technical and exemplary achievement in the horror genre and film in general. This visual and aural nightmare paces itself in revealing layers of complex narrative. The power of the film lies in its sophisticated technicalities– it’s eerie use of sound, atmospheric cinematography (Jarin Blaschke), and tight and confining framing that offers terrifying and unsettling moments as well as communicating the film’s religious overtones as imprisoning. The Witch is a thought provoking film that is both a beautiful and terrifying achievement from writer and director Robert Eggers, and one that will stay with you long after the screen goes black.
The Witch is currently playing in theaters with a projected DVD/Bluray release of June 2016, but catch it on the big screen for the optimal experience.