THE WITCH (2016) is Terrifying!

One of the first straight horror films of the year is the Sundance-acclaimed The Witch (stylized as The VVitch), directed by newcomer Robert Eggers. Clearly, Eggers has done his homework; at a Q&A for the New Hampshire Film Festival, Eggers said of the movie, “I tried to make a lot of films, and no one wanted to make them. They were too weird, too obscure. I thought, ‘I have to make a genre film that’s personal to me. If I’m going to make a genre film, it has to be personal and it has to be good.’” In this, his directorial debut, Eggers has achieved both, creating an unforgettable horror drama.

The film starts us off with a Puritan family in the 17th century (complete with olde-English vernacular) being exiled from their New England plantation; the father of the household, William (Ralph Ineson) has some deep rooted religious beliefs that the rest of the community do not share. And so the family sets out to find a new place to call home, eventually settling on a patch of land directly next to some deep, dark woods nearby. It is a few months later that the story really begins to take a turn and the family’s beliefs – and loyalties – are tested to their limits.

At odds throughout the film are the family’s religious ties and the forces at work from the depths of the forest, seemingly hell-bent on tearing the family apart. As such, the movie plays out not only as straight horror, but also family drama: the eldest daughter, Thomasin (played by the captivating Anya Taylor-Joy) and son, Caleb (newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw) are both reaching puberty, and all the joys and confusion that it brings; the twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) are constantly playing with – and “talking to” – their conspicuous black ram, Black Philip. As tensions run higher and more bizarre and unexplained occurrences befall the family, the film can be seen as either a psychological thriller (is Thomasin slowly being driven mad by the isolation and extreme zealotry of her family?) or pure foreboding horror (what does the titular witch want, if anything, with the family?).

Regardless of what mindset you fall into while viewing The Witch, almost every cinematic element is performed flawlessly here, and every one of those elements is played as a way to increase the mounting dread the audience feels. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is stunning, the entire film shot entirely under a gray sky or fleeting sunset, making the countryside grey and aloof, full of mystery and an unshakable sense of doom. The score by Mark Korven is a practice in calculated string shrieks and pulls, working perfectly to pull every shred of nerve to the surface. And there are almost no special effects to be heard of, relying on nothing but pure timing and practical effects to evoke a sense of anxiety and terror.

(As a side-note, Robert Eggers said this (also at the New Hampshire Film Festival Q&A) of the choir he chose to sing for the score: “I thought that an all-female choir for the woods and for the witch would be good, so Mark found us a fantastic choir of these women who are just incredible and super dedicated. When they were singing, the sound mixer was horrified because they were drooling and trembling and having fits and it was crazy and totally awesome.” Now that’s dedication to your craft!)

My only, only gripe would be with the last ten minutes of the film, which I know will polarize some viewers. I won’t say a peep here for those who haven’t yet seen it, but suffice to say I will be interested to see if there are any alternate versions or directors cuts that surface with a home release.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re sick and tired of gory slashers and would much prefer a more atmospheric, heady experience, this may be the film you’ve been waiting for. Directorial debut or no, The Witch is a fantastic work, a study of a 17th-century family breakdown, and above all a true New England fairytale of the Grimmest (sorry) variety.

About Seth Hansen

Seth is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. When not explaining to strangers why John Carpenter's The Thing is the greatest horror movie ever made (trust me, it is), he's usually playing violin or hanging out in record store clearance sections. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook!

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