I have never, in my life, been as tense as I was watching The Witch. For much of the brief 90 minutes of the film I found myself tightly gripping the arms of my chair, or gritting my teeth, my brain always at the ready for whatever terror would come next. It’s not so much that The Witch leaves viewers scared in the basic sense, it is more that it elicits in them an intense and sickly dread; a dread which lasts long after leaving the cinema. Indeed, I have a feeling I may well not be sleeping for the next few days.
The Witch, set in seventeenth century New England, tells the story of a family exiled from their puritan community as of a result of the father’s fanaticism. They build a new home for themselves at the edge of a large forest, and resume their life of farming and prayer. However, it doesn’t take long before bad things start to happen. Their baby is snatched away during a game of peekaboo. The crops fail. The animals begin acting strangely. As tension mounts, the increasingly strained relationship among those inside the house soon becomes just as frightening as whatever is going on outside.
From the outset, Mark Korven’s score ensures that no-one is sitting comfortably. The story is haunted by a jarring symphony of nyckelharpa strings and unnerving percussion, joined occasionally by the sweetly sinister voices of a distant choir. Korven himself has stated that, due to the fact that the eponymous witch so rarely makes an appearance, the soundtrack almost becomes a stand-in for her, and I agree completely. The music does not merely create atmosphere, but becomes an almost tangible presence. Whether having risen to a near-unbearable volume, or playing softly in the background, the score has a life of its own. Watching poor Caleb or Thomasin wandering through the woods as the music begins to soar, it begins to feel as though the music and whatever is creeping after them are one and the same.
The film’s cinematography is also incredible. Jarin Blaschke’s repeated use of wide shots (as well as the 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is a constant reminder of just how small and vulnerable the family is in the face of the vast New England wilderness. The forest, sitting only meters from their homestead, is a dark, brooding presence, very much alive despite how eerily silent it may seem. Every shot of it is still and steady creating dread with the fear that whatever is lurking in that stillness might make an appearance. The scene in which the baby is stolen, and Thomasin looks up towards the forest to see nothing but a few blades of grass dancing and then falling still again, makes me shudder to remember it.
The best thing about The Witch, however, is the performances. In spite of their flaws, fanaticism, and the atmosphere of increasing terror surrounding them all, the characters remain sympathetic to the end. Furthermore, they handle the period dialogue masterfully, making every “thou” and “thy” sound completely natural. Kate Dickie is wonderful as Katherine, the mother of the family, whose flinty manner is revealed to be the result of her private grief and uncertainty. Ralph Ineson is also brilliant as her husband, William, a devoted puritan whose “prideful conceit” may be his own downfall, and Harvey Scrimshaw shines as the tragic Caleb.
Nevertheless, the star of the film is unquestionably Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. Not only is her North Yorkshire accent spot-on (she was born in Florida), but she inhabits the role in a way that is utterly haunting to witness. I realise that I’m stating the obvious, but Taylor-Joy’s performance does not for even a moment feel like one; there is such an authenticity to it, such easy naturalness that it felt like I was watching some deeply unsettling documentary rather than a film.
Although the film has received rave reviews, I am sure that there will be those who aren’t happy with its ending. I don’t want to give too much away, so all I will say is that the film’s ending doesn’t go down the moody, mysterious route which many might expect it to. Rather, the ending is big and bold, and offers a very definitive view of events. However, I don’t mean that as a criticism. As someone who has seen a lot of horror films, too many vague endings can become frustrating after a while. As a whole, The Witch is deeply tense and atmospheric, relying on possibilities and what may be just out of sight to create fear; after so much subtlety, such a strong ending really packs a punch. Furthermore, I would argue that the ending does indeed provide room for interpretation, in that it can also be seen as the hallucination of a mind in distress.
The Witch is Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, which, considering just how sophisticated it is, is frankly astounding. It would be wise to mark the young director down as one to watch. Speaking of which, apparently, he has a remake of F. W. Murneau’s Nosferatu in the pipeline, and I’m very interested to see how that turns out. I can already hear classic horror fans railing against the idea, but I’d say they should at least give Eggers a chance. If The Witch is anything to go by, it’ll be elegant, well-shot, and absolutely terrifying.