Horror movies are made to appeal to an ever-widening audience. Previous gatekeepers like hyper-adult themes and visceral displays of terror are now being toned down to appease younger viewers (See Alien vs. Predator). Horrifying pictures that wrench into the gut of moviegoers are becoming less and less common. Enter Robert Eggers. Bucking the trend for softening things up, Eggers instead offered a deeply unsettling debut with The Witch. The film is a living nightmare, playing on fears and forcing viewers to retreat inside themselves for protection. Its affect doesn’t stop at the edge of the screen; it stays with you long after you’ve stopped watching.
Set in New England circa 1630, the picture opens on a colonial plantation. William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are forced to relocate to a tract of land on the edge of a foreboding forest. When their crops start dying off and their infant son goes missing, they fall apart, leaving them vulnerable to attack by an evil force.
My experiences with church growing up were mostly positive. I do recall being weirded out by fanatical members who would extend their palms to the sky and convulse in the pews while shouting “amen” to the heavens. As a preteen I wondered if they were better Christians than my parents or me, if they had a better relationship with God or if they simply liked the attention.
William’s rigid interpretation of scripture is a point of concern and contention among his fellow Puritans. He sees his banishment as a test of his commitment to Christ. His baritone voice booms across the soundtrack. It enters your soul and sends chills through your body. Still, he yields to the power of God. Even as his family falls apart around him, he believes it is God’s plan.
Key to the film’s success is Jarin Blaschke’s bleak photography and Craig Lathrop’s austere production design. The tired farmhouse reflects the hardships faced by William and his family, its bleak brown facade the color of the land that surrounds it. The vulnerability of the family is on display via the uneven ground and dry breeze. The picture is as cold as the mud William treks through on his way to the outhouse, as dark as the thick paste that clings to his boots.
Eggers’s deliberate design is a refreshing retreat from the noisy spectacles of modern horror. Rather than leaning on unimaginative jump scares to frighten viewers, he relies on imagery and atmosphere to create a mood of paranoia. The witch is not a shadowy figure lingering at the edge of the family’s world, but rather a grotesque crone who uses cauldrons and the blood of babies to brew evil. Most fright flicks rely on the cloak of darkness to build tension. The horror in The Witch unfolds not only under the cover of night, but also under the soft and diffuse rays of the sun. The Witch isn’t frightening because she slaughters babies, she’s scary because she does it in the middle of the day.
Eggers puts us in the shoes of his characters. We feel as though we are observing the terror unfold, as if the picture was put together from strands of found footage of an event meant to be forgotten. The filmmaker employs regional tales of witchcraft passed down from generation to generation to get under the skin of viewers. The old English dialogue (taken directly from 6th century journals) adds to the chilling realism of the film.
Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of William’s daughter Thomasin delivers a performance that resounds with complicated anxiety. Her wide-set eyes, stained the color of soil on a winter day lay bare her pain and vulnerability. Her soft lips, diffused with sadness, weigh on your heart.
Harvey Scrimshaw plays her younger brother Caleb. Their sibling rivalry goes beyond typical jealousy and fighting between sister and brother. It smacks of the Crucible. All kids pick and prod, but the fall out of their antagonism is harrowing. Thomasin is coming of age at the same time Caleb is undergoing dramatic biological changes. Caleb becomes increasingly aware of his sister’s physical maturation. The pain of confusion that moves across his brow when he accidentally catches a glimpse of her cleavage is not restricted to 17-the century protestant boys, but rather is perpetual.
Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, Eggers’s disturbing first effort remains an effectively frightening piece of horror fiction. It feels like a seasoned filmmaker is calling the shots. The calculated camera moves and subtle actions of the actors add to the mounting suspense. Its minimalist design makes your blood run cold while never straying into pretension. As the evil force moves in around William’s family, you feel the mental suffering of the characters. There are issues of spirituality and gender roles floating beneath the surface of The Witch, but Eggers’s main objective is scaring the shit out of viewers and he succeeds wholeheartedly.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
The Witch was a sleeper hit in 2016. After delighting audiences during its 2015 festival run, A24 opted to give the movie a wide release. The picture went on to earn more than 10 times its meager budget at the box office. The success of The Witch earned Eggers carte blanche in terms of what he wanted to do next. His psychological horror pic, The Lighthouse, about a pair of lighthouse keepers going crazy while locked at a remote lighthouse, despite being shot in a cropped, black and white format, satisfied critics and fans to the tune of $18 million. Eggers has been tied to a Nosferatu remake for some time, however it is rumored that his next feature will be a medieval piece starring Nicole Kidman. The Witch is available on blu-ray from Lionsgate. The disc features an insightful commentary track with Eggers along with a making of documentary and outtakes.