It’s very rare for a horror film to be counted as more than a genre piece. Still seen by many as niche or unsophisticated, even the most accomplished of horror films are rarely counted against more prestigious, more traditional genres of filmmaking. It does happen occasionally that one exceeds expectations - ‘The Shining’, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ are all counted amongst the great films of the last century. Even with great offerings like ‘The Babadook’ though, we haven’t seen a horror film receive genuine and robust critical acclaim this century. However, ’The Witch’, the debut film from writer-director Robert Eggers, may have done just that.
Set in New England in 1630, ‘The Witch’ tells the story of a family of British Puritans trying to establish a small farm in the wilderness. William (Ralph Inseson) tends to the failing crops with the help of his young son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), while Katherine (Kate Dickie) keeps house and their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) watches the younger children and tends to the animals. However, their humble existence begins to crumble when a series of bizarre and disturbing occurrences begin, threatening to tear their family apart. Their faith leads them to believe that some form of witchcraft is involved, and they begin to turn on one another, suspecting one of them is in allegiance with the Devil.
Like an art film pulled from the depths of hell, ‘The Witch’ is both a startling debut from Eggers and a groundbreaking work of genuine horror. Told in the form of a folktale, the film manages to capture the very palpable fear of witchcraft that infected the United States in the 1600s by serving historical accuracy and combining it with a legitimate supernatural threat. We watch as the family turn on one another, convinced that failed crops and missing children must be the work of the Devil, but unlike other famous recreations of the period, such as Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’, something diabolical and thoroughly evil is terrorising the family, offering provocations to increase their anxiety and waiting patiently while it tears itself apart. Physical, spiritual and cultural detail in the film is shockingly accurate, right down to the specific and archaic dialect, but ’The Witch’ is less an historical period piece of Puritan life and more a harrowing recreation of a Puritan nightmare. Eggers understands deeply the reason for their supernatural fears, and the film pulls on many of them, from the sexual awakening and confusion of Thomasin and Caleb as they approach puberty, to the lack of understanding and patience the colonial settlers have towards the American landscape.
Even without the supernatural, the film would still be a deeply affecting experience, but its presence in the film elevates and intensifies its power. The film forgoes cheap scares for deep-seated psychological and emotional trauma, bringing it closer to the classic definition of ‘horror’. We now associate this style of storytelling with blood and sudden jumps, but true horror deals with the dark recesses of the human mind, supernatural forces often manifesting as a metaphor for something far more human. This is what gives the film its poetry and power - that the presence of the witch hiding in the woods serves the themes of Eggers’ folktale rather than overtaking them. Moments to chill the bone are kept to a minimum in ‘The Witch’, but when they arrive, they are amongst the most disturbing moments in horror cinema this century.
Eggers may have also delivered one of the finest first features of all time. His command of the rhythm, tone and style of the film is jaw-dropping, each narrative twist and turn executed with frightening precision. This is career-making work, like Malick and Kubrick filtered through a nightmare. Every frame of Darin Blaschke’s cinematography is a work of art, especially within the 1.66:1 framing that gives the film an impossibly timeless look. Production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir have pulled off some kind of miracle with their attention to detail and vivid recreation of the period setting. And seething underneath it is Mark Korven’s infernal, magnificent score, easily one of the finest horror scores ever composed.
Eggers may have also delivered one of the finest first features of all time. This is career-making work, like Malick and Kubrick filtered through a nightmare.
The ensemble are also extraordinary, with Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie lending the necessary gravitas and biblical fury as William and Katherine and capturing the deep-seated religious beliefs with startling conviction. The younger cast steal the film though, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood caught in the crossfire between her mother and father. As the film moves towards its devastating finale, and Thomasin is subjected to greater horror, she rises as the driving force of the film and must balance the enormous moral conundrums placed in her way. She’s complemented beautifully by Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, quiet and delicate, a boy who wants to be a man but whose religious beliefs prevent him from understanding what that might mean.
I could write pages and pages on the craftsmanship and intelligence of this film, but none of that matters in the experience of watching it. ‘The Witch’ left me in awe, shaken and disturbed and exhilarated. I was glued to every frame, poised on the edge of my seat, horrified and hypnotised by its diabolical spell. What Robert Eggers has created is a film to stand alongside the great horror films of cinema, next to ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Exorcist’, with a bold climax of haunting and infernal majesty. Rarely these days are horror films this intelligent, this poetic and this disturbing, or exceed the imposed parameters of their genre to be counted as a work of great cinema. ‘The Witch’ is a masterpiece in every way, already one of the best films of the year and easily one of the greatest horror films ever made.