There aren’t many genuinely creepy witch movies (besides maybe Blair Witch Project, which might make you sick). But 2015 Sundance Directing Award winner Robert Eggers delivers one of the most historically accurate, chilling horror movies this year in his first-time feature, The Witch. Also the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, the film centers on a 1630s New England Puritan family torn apart by black magic. While its premise sounds like traditional horror, the film is far from ordinary as Eggers crafts the narrative more like a slow, psycho-drama. The Witch doesn’t give itself easily, but in submitting to the film’s methodical pace, you become absorbed into an uncanny, mystical world of historical detail and realism you’ve never experienced before.
Eggers’ background in production and costume design shows immediately. All the costumes are hand-sewn, with Eggers using tools of that era and apparently even flying in a Canadian expert to thatch the roofs properly. Five years of research and development influences not only the production design, but also the writing. His examination of actual accounts of people who had been bewitched creates incredibly realistic dialogue, as well as casting British actors to recite dialect properly. All the performances are impressively understated, particularly by the daughter Thomasin (Anya-Taylor Joy) and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). The parents too, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), deliver devoted performances, looking slightly demonic at times themselves as they try to hold the family together. None of the actors are stars, lending rare credibility to their characters as real people.
The realism of the story also follows in that we barely see the witches, as the film builds suspense through what we can’t see versus typical, jump-in-your-seat moments. In the 1600s, witchcraft was more mystical than fact. No one understood remedies for possession beyond devout faith and prayer, and bewitchment could also include animals. The family’s goat, nicknamed Black Phillip, is quite demonic (especially its eyes), and the branches in the surrounding woods serve as the perfect environment for the witch’s satanic magic.
What makes the film creepiest is actually its treatment of witches as something almost made up. Innocent games like Thomasin’s playing peek-a-boo with the baby, or the twins playing “witch,” quickly create massive distrust in the family as they become helpless to the unfolding events. The Witch is most effective in the mundane actions where we expect something to go wrong, like the father chopping wood or Thomasin’s tending to the goats. Unseen terror becomes scarier than terror itself, and Eggers holds us constantly uncomfortable of the next attack.
With low, constant suspense, the beginning and middle sections of the film do feel slow, taking long shots of the woods and community to acclimate us to the time period and dialect (which does take some time to understand). We’re held at a distance from seeing or understanding the magic, which can be frustrating, yet effectively equates the viewer with the family’s confusion and paranoia about the witch’s presence.
This distance makes The Witch strangely more horrifying in some, but it still isn’t a Hollywood film. Eggers dutifully explores faith and family relationships in scenes that require patience, striving toward a larger theme of morality and evil, and an outside magic that forces (or exposes) evil to grow from within. Once the story takes off (and trust me, you’ll know), The Witch grabs you and accelerates to a chilling, permanent darkness you can’t imagine.
See The Witch at Tinseltown various times this week, and check back next week for the sequel to Cloverfield (though quite unique in its own right), 10 Cloverfield Lane.