Horror is an ever-evolving genre. Its presence exists on various levels. Mainstream horror, while often rewarding, tends to rely on jump scares – placating the average moviegoer that’s drawn to momentary thrills and chills. But for diehard fanatics, their tastes may lie in a more subtle delivery. The kind of horror that haunts them to their core. The kind that’s unforgiving, relentless, and not afraid to push boundaries. It’s not about the shock and awe per se, but more so about capturing an inexplicable sense of dread. These sort of films rarely see a theatrical release, not ones worth noting anyway. But when they do, it’s a win for filmmakers and an experience for anyone willing to open their mind to a unique approach to storytelling.
Which brings me to Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch. After making its premiere in the festival market at Sundance last year, where Eggers won Best Director honors in the U.S. dramatic competition, The Witch has effectively crept towards its anticipated theatrical release. Its long-awaited arrival follows brilliant marketing from the increasingly impressive indie studio A24, which has resulted in an exorbitant amount of interest from genre enthusiasts.
Aptly described as A New England Folktale set in the 1630s – decades shy of the Salem Witch Trials – The Witch chronicles the misfortune of a deeply religious family led by father William (Ralph Ineson). His extreme views on worship results in his family’s exile from a New England plantation. It’s at this point where an overwhelming sense of dread sets in. His wife Katherine (Katie Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) look on, helpless, their fates inseparable from their father’s pride. They immediately relocate to an unknown location on the edge of foreboding woods, leaving security and community behind.
Hoping to start anew, raising animals and growing corn before winter’s harsh arrival, the family’s faith is put to the ultimate test when William and Katherine’s newborn son Samuel goes missing. While they’re unsure of his fate, we’re fully informed that the titular antagonist is responsible, which leads us to the most disturbing and unforgettable scene of the film. I won’t dare spoil it, but there’s nothing light about what unfolds.
Tensions rise as Katherine is unable to cope with her son’s disappearance nor is she able to fully forgive Thomasin, who was tasked with looking after him. Caleb struggles with his faith, drilling his father about the afterlife. All while the new Twins of Terror form a seemingly alarming bond with Black Phillip, the family’s billy goat. That goes largely unnoticed for the time being. Their situation takes another turn for the worse when the crops fail and starvation plagues what’s left of their sanity. More troubling events occur, including the disappearance of Caleb and his subsequent return following an encounter with the witch. Katherine directs her inconsolable rage towards Thomasin, while the twins claim she’s the witch. The family unravels, allowing the evil that’s surrounded them to work its way into the fold with devastating consequence.
Eggers excels with a slow, dreadful burn to a fiery conclusion. His story stems from a strong appreciation of the Kubrick era, specifically The Shining, and his own fascination with witches as a child. The Witch examines familial relationships in the 17th century as well as the religious fanaticism, citing actual journals and other transcripts of that time to create a well-versed world for his godforsaken family. There’s no question that Eggers took his time researching the time period, doing his best to understand the religion, societal expectations, and the dialect. He takes that foundation and twists everything we know about the 17th century into his own grim world.
Historical accuracy aside, The Witch shines in large part due to its cast, most notably Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson. The embroiled father-daughter duo are polarizing, their personal journeys driving a wedge between the family. Ineson shines as a father so inexplicably devoted to his religion that pride trumps reason. Father William isolates his family from a secure community, fails to cultivate food, and lies to his family every step of the way all in the name of God. Taylor-Joy represents the rise to womanhood and the inherent sexism that existed during this time. William suggests giving Thomasin away to another family in light of the recent tragedies and her apparent wickedness (at the behest of the matriarch). Even with powerhouse performances from all those involved, the 17th-century dialect can, at times, be difficult to understand. But perhaps that was Eggers’ intent. To force us to pay close attention so that we consume every deliciously dreadful moment.
Yes, the titular witch does exist, but Eggers focuses on keeping most things left to the imagination. The Witch’s appearances are minimal, but wholly effective. Meanwhile, he keeps his attention on the family and studies how religion, irreparable trauma, and paranoia can force a mother and father to turn against their own children. Driven by Mark Korven’s striking score (another ode to The Shining), The Witch drips with dread. Less is more here. The big reveals will leave you wanting more, while wishing you hadn’t seen them in the first place. That’s horror.
There are those that won’t call The Witch horror. Average moviegoers are groomed to equate horror with jump scares, but the genre deserves so much more than that. It’s not a two-dimensional platform that solely pumps out jump scenes for popcorn audiences. The Witch is horror in its rawest form – analyzing inexplicable fear of the unknown. Cheap thrills last momentarily. True horror, the kind soaked in absolute dread, sticks with you. That’s what The Witch delivers.
No boundaries. No limits. Profoundly taboo. Unadulterated terror.
Photo Credit: A24