New England in the 1630s: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassable wilderness. When their newborn son vanishes and crops fail, the family turns on one another. Beyond their worst fears, a supernatural evil lurks in the nearby wood.
Is it possible for a contemporary horror movie to make us believe in God, the Devil or the fiery pits of hell? The spewings of The Exorcism are now a joke. So too, the tropes of satanic offspring and bloody sex rites around midnight fires. The startling achievement of debut writer-director Robert Eggers’ The Witch (originally titled The VVitch: a New-England Folktale) is that it manages to make us believe totally, at least for a little while, in the cosmology of its deeply pious characters, 17th century pilgrims who battle the elements of a harsh new land, as well as their own sinful natures – and something far more sinister.
Set around 1630, the story begins with William (Ralph Ineson) standing trial in a Puritan village council hall. Accused of “prideful conceit”, he insists he’s innocent and follows the Gospels to the letter. Yet he’s banished from the safety of the pioneer settlement and, together with his pinch-faced wife Catherine (Kate Dickie) and their four children, the family sets out into the unprotected wilderness with only a horse, a wagon and their meager belongings. Fast forward a few seasons and there’s a new baby, a rough-hewn house and a tiny crop. Lined up on a hill like a small group of kneeling prisoners, William leads the family in euphoric worship: “What went we out into this wilderness to find, leavin’ our country, our kindred, our father’s houses? For what? For the kingdom of God!” The prayer may be triumphant but they’re facing, literally, the dark and foreboding woods. Jarin Blashke’s cinematography (close rear angles, disarming tracking shots and grim natural lighting) together with Mark Korven’s chilling score (shrieking strings, rattling percussion and moaning women’s voices) never lets us forget that this family is destined for a particular nightmare.
Original and moody, especially in its strong start, The Witch is a must-see for all fans of spooky, stylish, supernatural horror.
The evil begins when teenage daughter Thomasin (a beautifully fair and wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with the baby. After several rounds of the game, she covers her eyes and when she opens them, the baby is gone, its murmurings almost but not quite heard in the dark woods. In the shadows (or is it in imagination?) we see a naked female figure, performing some cruel red ritual with a knife.
Quickly, the family is rent with suspicion. The father and eldest son (Harvey Scrimshaw) have secretly sold a silver cup to pay for traps and lies escalate. There’s the whiff of unholy longings and guilt about small (or are they large?) transgressions. The mother is distraught because the baby had not been baptized yet. The youngest remaining children, nasty-looking twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are unruly, obsessed with playing repetitive games with Black Phillip, the Billy-goat. Mind those huge horns and that beady black eye...
Poisoned apples, blood in the milk pail and crows pecking on breasts – the familiar tropes of supernatural horror are inventively and sincerely woven into the narrative. Writer-director Eggers is a former costume and production designer, and the film’s attention to rough, homespun detail gives it a gritty and believable texture, alongside the poetic and sometimes obscure period dialogue. (The characters call each other ‘thee’ and ‘thou’.) The performances are wonderful – particularly Ineson, whose narrow, hard-worn face looks born for the role of conscience-tortured pilgrim, and Taylor-Joy, whose seeming innocence is combined with tantalizing teen rebelliousness. It’s a pity then that the film insists on spelling out its conclusion in a manner that takes the entire serious enterprise into the realm of the mockable. Far more haunting if we’d been kept guessing, but this makes it easy to write it off as a fevered fairytale. Still, original and moody, especially in its strong start, The Witch is a must-see for all fans of spooky, stylish, supernatural horror.
Next airs 10:30PM, Saturday 12 October on SBS VICELAND (at SBS On Demand following broadcast)
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Lucas Dawson
What's it about?
New England in the 1630s: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassable, forbidding wilderness. When their newborn son vanishes and crops fail, the family turns on one another. Beyond their worst fears, a supernatural evil lurks in the nearby wood.