Robert Eggers’s Sundance-garlanded period horror is a chilling study of fear and the devils that live within us all. Fantastic horror, nightmare-folkmare stuff.
Set in New England, the film concerns a devout Puritan father who’s banished from a relatively stable life on a commune and takes his family to start a new life on the edge of a jagged and distinctly forbidding patch of woodland. Almost right away, the family are beset by a series of occurrences that could have come from the Book of Job: William’s baby son, Samuel, suddenly disappears in broad daylight. William insists that the child was dragged off by a wolf, but eldest daughter Thomasin suspects he was taken away by a witch. Then the crops fail. A goat lactates pure blood. Evil seems to surround the little farm, and gradually, the family turns on each other.
In pacing and atmosphere, the film is closer to an arthouse film than a mainstream horror. Eggers’ film is generously steeped in history and years of research. Its characters speak a molasses-thick northern British dialect, since they’re a 17th century family who only recently sailed from the Old World to America. The sets and costumes are all authentic down to the last clapboard barn.
The Witch is more about a family torn apart by paranoia and superstition than witchcraft, and the scenes where the parents turn violently on their own children are almost as disturbing as the moments of bloodletting in the woods. Director Eggers is a New England native and has researched his history in depth and lifts dialogue directly from contemporaneous diaries, letters and religious documents. From such research, startling images emerge and a message that it’s through our fears and prejudices that we create our own demons.
USA 2015, 92 min, rated R16 (horror & violence)
Directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson & Bathsheba Garnett