An impressive, spine-tingling debut, writer-director Robert Eggers employs a gothic aesthetic in this haunting horror which has earned him the Best Director gong at Sundance. The Witch is a horror of shadows, of rising dread and unsettling score (out of tune strings, ungodly choirs) and set in 1630, decades before the Salem Witch Trials of New England.
It’s unclear why William (Ineson) and his family – wife Katherine (Dickie), teenage children Thomasi (Taylor-Joy) and Caleb (Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and their baby Samuel – are banished from their New England settlement but given the family’s obsession with cleansing of one’s sins it’s perhaps they felt the community have lost sight of the true path of God. The puritanical William, dangerously mixing devout faith, paranoia and superstition, takes his family into the wilderness, setting up a small farm. But the crop fails and the family is hungry. When Samuel is kidnapped by an unseen force when under the care of Thomasin the family begin to fear there’s a witch in the nearby woods and that Thomasin is under her spell…
Apart from the Olde English dialogue delivered in a rough Yorkshire accent, it’s the foreboding atmosphere that’s immediately noticeable and Eggers tightens this screw with every scene. New to colonial America and cast out from the only nearby settlement, there’s an air of desperation and isolation. The dark skies, the close up of the black goat, the imposing woods that surround the family, Katherine’s mental instability and William’s increasingly devout ways – they all combine to create a real fear and oppressive atmosphere in the absence of boo moments. Although the story feels familiar (Eggers researched endless folktales of witch stories) the writer-director ensures the audience is always on unsure footing – are the family half mad or is there something to their fears? – and is prepared to take the story in directions contrary to horror conventions and expectations.
With his deep, booming voice and height character actor Ralph Ineson (probably best known for The Office’s Finchy) cuts an imposing figure in a career-best turn. Dickie (Red Road, For Those In Peril) is right behind him with an increasingly twitchy performance. Anya Taylor-Joy, her face kept fresh despite the much and horror around her, and Harvey Scrimshaw aren’t too shabby either in eye-catching turns.
It’s slow pace might put off those used to more mainstream approach to their favourite genre but The Witch will surprise.