In the wilds of New England in the 1600’s a Puritan family sets up their new home close to the woods…
Anyone with the slightest interest in the horror genre has probably been hearing about Robert Eggers’ The Witch for awhile now, ever since it captivated audiences at Sundance in early 2015. And the reputation is deserved for this richly atmospheric period tale.
It’s all about a family of Early settlers who have come over from England and find themselves setting up a new home in the wilderness far from the nearest camp. Their steps are dogged by misfortune but they are sustained by their faith, even as a darker force seems to be laying siege to their settlement.
First time feature director Eggers came up as a production designer and that can be seen in every inch of The Witch. The period detail is incredible, from the costumes to the real-life buildings of this isolated homestead. And it’s also beautiful to behold, lensed by Jarin Blaschke using candlelight and the wan streams of sunlight which filter through the trees.
Eggers’ script leans heavily into the setting with a stylised speech pattern which echoes that of the time, thanks to recorded documents. It takes a few minutes to get used to but is far less complicated than even entry level Shakespeare and has also adds another layer of strangeness to the already alien surroundings.
The sense of a group of people on the edge of something unknowable is powerful in every frame of The Witch, and that’s paired with their unwavering religious faith, which is set against something older and more primeval.
There’s a large psychological element here but also a supernatural one, with the film being unusually forthright in embracing elements of the horror genre. That makes it a more straightforward picture than I was expecting, with scares and shocks aplenty and lashings of atmosphere.
The dialogue might have been a problem with some less assured performances but the limited cast all do a brilliant job. Ralph Ineson’s voice is nothing short of marvellous and his struggle palpable as he tries to hold his family together. Kate Dickie is predictably excellent and young Harvey Scrimshaw brings a huge amount of presence to a difficult role, with one standout scene.
Even the young twins Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger are perfectly cast, and there’s some top notch goat acting as well. The film really belongs to Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a character who is forced to question everything she knows on her perilous journey towards the grim finale.
It’s hard to find fault with The Witch thanks to strong performances, incredible tech specs and lashings of atmosphere. I’m not sure mainstream audiences will respond to its curious style and dark tone but it deserves to be a huge success for director Eggers and he’s definitely one to watch for the future.