"just enough intrigue and a plentiful helping of ambiguity"
Considering the hype around debutant Robert Eggers’ The Witch, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the scariest film ever made. But in truth this eerie period drama of sorts focuses on the foreboding nature of supernatural occurrences, strong religious obedience and a sense of not knowing what’s around every corner of every scene.
1630s New England. A family of six live deep in the seclusion of a forest that, as becomes evident in its opening moments, is also home to a rather contemptuous witch.
Once you get past the fact that Finchy from The Office (Ralph Ineson) heads this self sufficient settlement (and you will after a few scenes), you’ll become engrossed in William and his family, consisting of wife Katherine (Game of Thrones’ Lysa Arryn), young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and eldest daughter Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Instead of a typically mainstream horror that serves to frighten the living hell out of its audience with jump scares, Eggers instead forges a slow-burning, foreboding sense of horror that gives very little away as to its intention as it gradually forms. In their world of harvesting food to survive and serving the Lord, we’re presented with a series of unsettling, unexplained events. And it’s these supernatural happenings that are the biggest scare factor of The Witch: the unknown nature of what we don’t ever see and can’t possibly explain is what grips way beyond a jump-a-minute mainstreamer.
There’s just enough intrigue and a plentiful helping of ambiguity as to the source and indeed catalyst of the black magic that’s creeping into the family’s lives to keep us questioning until the climax. Is someone within this home responsible for their unholy misfortunes, and is someone indeed conspiring with the revered witch in the woods? And it’s this sense of paranoia – who’s trustworthy, who isn’t? Who’s a threat, who isn’t? – that makes for a fascinating and hugely tense 90 minutes.
The Witch, from a technical standpoint, is flawless: from its beautifully captured cinematography, to its accomplished, fluid direction, to the strikingly authentic-looking set design. Eggers stirs up a sublime, piercing atmosphere that benefits from honing in on creating a reality rather than convoluting things with a complex plot; instead shrouding our characters in mystery and inevitable danger.
The Witch intentionally veers into the niche avenue of horror films, much like 2014’s The Babadook did, with a vague yet terrifying implication of witchcraft and possession at work, emphasising on the psychological aspects most affecting to its audience.
Oh, and the most sinister of non-human scene-stealers, a goat named Black Phillip.