If you want to see the herald of a paralyzing new era for horror in film, you owe it to yourself to see The Witch.
Set in 1630 New England, The Witch opens with the pious William willfully removing himself from the impurities of a burgeoning plantation. He plans to forge a provident path for his English emigrant family, and when they find a remote clearing amid a dark forest some miles away, William commences their self-reliant existence. One afternoon, eldest daughter Thomasin, charged with the care of infant Samuel by mother Katherine, plays with her baby brother near the edge of the wood. He vanishes, spirited into the veiled timberland by a cloaked figure. Here, the innocent Samuel meets with an unspeakable fate, sparking an erosion of faith for William’s family that leaves them vulnerable to the evils of isolation, paranoia, and the dark arts.
The dismal path forged by The Witch is unprecedented merely because precedent does not do justice to witchcraft; most viewers conjuring the subject draw on the pointy-hatted, cauldron-stirring, broom-steering raver of The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps justice is done by the iterations where witchcraft is a myth to be perverted by the corrupt for political gamesmanship, like The Crucible or Witchfinder General. An equal measure of success comes with the agnostic ambiguousness of The Blair Witch Project, Häxan, and the little-seen Black Death. Black magic is treated more seriously in the territory of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Suspiria, and Rosemary’s Baby, but the less said about the reductive fatuousness of The Last Witch Hunter, The Craft, Season of the Witch, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the better.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever considered that our colonial antecedents trembled with elemental fear at this sacrilegious mysticism, you might wonder why cinematic history is bereft of classical tales capturing the God-fearing patriarchy of early America where these Calvinist immigrants are given something to really be frightened about. Fascinated by this vacuum, writer/director Robert Eggers sought to fill it, and he turned a ditch into a mountain with The Witch. Part of the reason for this is his steadfast adherence to historicity and refusal to shirk cliché; much of what you see will conform to your preconceived notions of witchcraft, but Eggers’ honesty and seriousness keep you in spellbound suspense over it.
But the true astonishing success of The Witch lies in the perfect execution of its formalist technique. We share the hunger, anxiety, and dread of the characters when they’re sitting down to dinner, penetrating the woods, or seeing the manifestations of a malevolent force because Eggers’ sturdy, clean camerawork never draws attention to itself with cheap or brazen tactics. He understands, better than most, that the best tension is atmospheric, escalating our anticipation with each subtle suggestion. As food is to exposition, a few bites go a long way toward building an appetite, so The Witch makes it crystal clear what’s in store early in the opening act. With those images still searing behind our eyes, every gust of wind, speck of light, moving branch, and mistimed footstep wrenches us, pulling us deeper into this world of supernatural terror until we are consumed.
Fortunately, Eggers is not satisfied with merely scaring us cross eyed. Buried in this folktale is a deep examination of early religious patriarchal society, particularly where hubris is concerned. God is invoked at every turn, for healing and strength, but also as an excuse or cover. Children were loved no less than they are today, but they were occasionally treated like property – especially young women. And if a father’s stewardship of his household was misguided in pre-industrial society, he could easily damn his entire family. These time honored tragical themes enhance, but don’t dominate The Witch.
What does dominate The Witch, other than pervasive, nightmare-fueling terror, is language. Few films spoken in an English tongue deserve subtitles as much as this (the Coen’s True Grit comes to mind), and the experience is far richer for it. William’s reverential exaltations ring with shattering authenticity, his verbiage dense with sanctimonious sage followed by more of the same from Katherine, even if their children don’t take heed. Credit the terrific, underutilized Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie for their commitment to mastering the wording, but making themselves understood in their faces and movements. Not to be outdone, newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation as their bedeviled daughter Thomasin, showing such remarkable restraint in both the soul-crushing guilt over Samuel and the impotent rage of being the family scapegoat that her few moments of joy flood you with trembling ecstasy.
So whether you passively enjoy horror films or consider yourself a pure cinema aficionado, you have no excuse. You have to see The Witch.