Old hags, horned deceivers and scary forests have all been done to death and it’s easy to see why audiences might tire of revisiting the same old tropes in new horror. ‘Twould be best to banish such doubts where Robert Eggers’ brooding debut feature and Sundance hit The Witch (2015) is concerned, however. It may tread familiar ground, but it does so with unsettling composure, repurposing recognisable genre motifs for the period tale of a god-fearing family beset on their isolated New England farm. As much about the fear of sin as it is about evil itself, this is incredibly atmospheric stuff dripping with puritanical dread and steeped in satanic folklore.
Superstition is the key ingredient in seasoning Eggers’ premise, of a family straining beneath the gargantuan weight of their own fear and guilt, with the supernatural. If you are hoping for a crone to descend upon them from the woods and pick them off in ever more inventive ways, then – while you’re half right – this is probably not the film for you. This is horror as ambiguity and recrimination in which the terror grips you far deeper; it’s designed to chill the blood, not make you jump. The director cut his teeth on a Hansel and Gretel short in the German Expressionist style, so he’s no stranger to crafting terrifying woodland. A tangle of gnarled and knotted trunks lurk omnipresent and impenetrable.
Mist rolls through Jarin Blaschke’s cold and precise photography as potently as the disappearance of the baby Samuel tears through the fabric of this newly adopted homestead – and the gruesome, abstracted violence of his fate dispatches any sense of comfort and safety the audience may be harbouring. William (Ralph Ineson) has been forced to relocate his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children after exile from the Puritan plantation they called home due to the rigidity of his faith. Everyone finds that truly tested after Samuel is snatched, and grief and spite reverberate through the wooden farmhouse. As strange and troubling events escalate, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) suffers the brunt of her mother’s wrath, while Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) sees the first temptation of the flesh in his sister’s blossoming bosom and the two youngest children share an ominous affinity with a mean-eyed ram named Black Philip. A pall has set over the farm and the meticulous research by the filmmakers grounds proceedings in a disarming and distressing reality. There are lulls in the narrative but never breaks and as the spectre in the woods, and an alarmingly discomforting hare, tighten the noose, accusations and confessions flow as thickly as blood. That a character embracing sin provides the only moment of respite – nay, ecstasy – is indication enough at what drives the intestine-twisting tension of The Witch.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.