With the slasher and torture-porn subgenres having mostly withered away while indie directors are afforded more and more creative licence to explore new ideas, I feel as though horror is entering a new renaissance. Sure, there have been some outstanding horror pictures between the early 80’s and today, but rarely with such quality and concentration as the last couple of years. The Babadook graced screens in 2014 with its creative and moving exploration of grief and loss, while last year gave us a twistedly-brilliant mind-boggler in Goodnight Mommy as well as a genuinely terrifying look at the inevitability of death in the masterpiece It Follows. Now, as 2016 begins, we deservedly shift our attention toward The Witch, an indie horror film as immense and thoughtful as they come.
The Witch is certainly a change of pace, whisking the audience away to 1630s New England. We follow a family of English settlers as they are banished from their plantation after an undisclosed theological dispute with the local church and are forced to fend for themselves in the untamed American wilderness. After finding a spot near the edge of the wood, the family builds a home and farm, living peacefully – until, naturally, a witch residing in the forest kidnaps the unbaptised youngest child and begins to torment them.
This is where The Witch became particularly interesting to me and defied my expectations. I had anticipated more of a “monster” film with the witch playing a prominent role, but instead she seems to drift out of the picture, almost to the point of being an afterthought. The witch herself becomes a source of suspense only for the audience but not more than a catalyst for the characters’ strife. The true source of terror here, the thing that strikes genuine fear in the hearts of the family, is not a creature, nor any physical threat, but the fear of hellfire and damnation.
Faith is always on the minds of each family member; during a morning trek in the woods to check traps, the father, William (Ralph Ineson) quizzes his eldest son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), on facts about the gospel and his salvation like they’re progressing through a catechism before Caleb expresses his distress that his sins may not be forgiven and he might not be found in Christ. A weeping and bereaved mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), repeatedly begs God to forgive her sins and remain her Father and her His child after her son is stolen. When we first hear from Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter and arguable main character, she’s begging God forgiveness for playing on the Sabbath and neglecting her prayers. Thus The Witch eschews classical horror tropes for an abstract theological horror, the family tormented by their puritanical faith that provides no balance of love and grace to God’s justice and wrath. It’s fascinating.
I also found it a fair bit less frightening for myself as a result. Surely the film is unnerving, disturbing, and tense, using the dramatic irony of the witch’s presence to its favour for the audience, but never ferociously so. Perhaps it was because I’d been playing Bloodborne followed by watching an episode of Vice about euthanasia that depicted a Dutch woman receiving assisted suicide for mental illness the night before and I was pretty well numb by that point, but it just didn’t get under my skin like It Follows did. I fully expected to walk out of the cinema sick to my stomach, and I still can’t decide if what I got was a pleasant surprise or an unpleasant one.
This is an aesthetically wonderful production as well. Eggers brings the 17th-century settlement to life with bleak and harsh realism, having filmed on seemingly authentic sets in middle-of-nowhere Ontario. Period-accurate dialogue adapted from real journal entries sells the feel as well while making it more distant and otherworldly, and while it’s difficult to digest at first, it works after a minute or two of adjustment. One of the pitfalls of period dialogue is that it can be difficult for actors to sell it well, but the cast here nearly always makes it feel natural and unforced, save a few errors from some of the younger performers. Ralph Ineson gave the most impressive performance for me, handling the father role with loving gravitas, blending moral strength and good-heartedness with white lies and pride in a way that makes him human and real.
Visually, The Witch is impeccable. Jarin Blaschke pieces together some stunning photography that’s as unsettling as it is beautiful. A washed-out colour palette emphasises the dread of the coming winter, and shots are used intelligently to characterise the family members, making excellent use of visual storytelling methods and subtlety. I’m fairly confident that natural lighting was used for most (if not all) of the shots as well – I’m reminded of one shot in particular that was incredibly grainy, lit only by candles and lanterns, and though it drew me out of the film for just a moment, I respected the director’s uncompromising stance. A building sensation of tension and dreadful anticipation is used to provide the horror (I can’t recall a single jump-scare or even particularly grotesque and gory moment) as a brilliant, creaking and squealing score reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s unappreciated genius compositions for There Will Be Blood fills in the gaps, and while it’s not as effective as I may have hoped, it’s still refreshing and very welcome. This is some masterful work from first-time feature director Eggers. At this moment, I can’t quite decide if The Witch is really really good or really really really good, and I should like to see it one or two more times in the near future to process it some more. Either way, it’s certainly essential horror viewing.
Edit: After further consideration, I decided it was really really really good and would probably mark the film up to an A-. I’ve left everything as-is for journalistic integrity’s sake, though.