The horror film The Witch arrives like a revelation. It ignores traditional structure, and finds new ways to frighten us. Robert Eggers’ feature-length debut made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival – he won a top directing prize, which is unusual for a genre film – and the command of his craft is mesmerizing. He does not rely on special effects. Eggers instead trusts his actors, production design, and shrewd editing to reach a conclusion that’s both inevitable and deeply disquieting. Most horror films aspire to be fun. This one will make your skin crawl, and it sometimes feels downright evil.
The phrase “holier than thou” defines a brusque, necessary prologue. Set in colonial America, a man stands before his elders and angrily defies them, saying they violated their puritan ideals. The elders suggest exile, and the man openly welcomes it. He is William (Ralph Ineson), and most of The Witch takes place around the modest, isolated farm he erected for his family. William’s wife (Kate Dickie) mostly tends to her infant child, while her teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) assumes the brunt of the farm work. Harvey Scrimshaw plays Caleb, the eldest son who is approaching manhood, both in terms of responsibility and sexual curiosity. The younger twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are a nuisance, so Thomasin uses her imagination to keep them in check.
Eggers favors simple, austere compositions and natural lighting. Along with editor Louise Ford, he establishes tension by creating simple patterns and violating them. There is an early sequence where Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with her baby brother; after making him coo in delight, she opens her eyes and he is simply gone. The family has no adequate explanation for what happened, but Eggers shows us a gaunt, grotesque figure feasting in the dark. Is the figure a witch, or a figment of the family’s imagination? Eggers keeps it ambiguous, and instead uses the disappearance to upend everything the family holds sacred. Their isolation leads to a breakdown of responsibility, and a gnawing sense of distrust.
Unlike other recent films set in the past, The Witch feels like a long-lost artifact. Eggers’ dialogue uses English that was common to the period – words like “hath” and “thee” pepper their speech – and the accents are thick. This means that part of the film is difficult to understand, yet it creates a feeling of authenticity that’s necessary for its desired effect. All the actors disappear into their roles, without any sense of artifice. While no one performance stands out above all the others, I should note that Ineson, a character actor who’s appeared in film/television for decades, has a baritone so brooding and deep that it’s scary in and of itself.
The verisimilitude and persistent, escalating dread leads to the payoff of the film’s third act. Actually, “payoff” is not the right word, since the final minutes are so immersive and intense that I was worried about how they might end. There is an incredible scene where the family attempts to deliver Caleb from a sickness through prayer. Eggers’ uses economical lighting and camera placement, so the actors must suggest terror by acting inhuman, in the literal sense of the word. I have no idea how Eggers got the actors to accomplish what they do on screen, especially the young ones, but the effect is bone-chilling and the sort of stuff where we might worry for their sanity.
While crisp greys and a discordant string score define the majority of the film, Eggers eventually settles in deep blacks and heart-stopping silence. There is a moment toward the end of The Witch that is frankly similar to several other films, but it’s so effective that I stopped thinking critically and thought, “Well, that’s completely fucked.” And then I shuddered.
Eggers describes The Witch as “a New England folk tale.” The suggestion of classic storytelling is important, since there is an allegorical element that’s more universal than modern. William has a moment of contrition, yet is too late: his patriarchal authority is more to blame for what happens than the creatures that lurk in the darkness. Still, it is the sublimely creepy ending where Eggers finally articulates the themes he’s been exploring all along. He is not critical of what happens, and instead I think he sees it as a consequence of inflexible piety. We no longer worry for the characters, because in a deliciously macabre sense, they are better off than when they started.