The Witch

US/UK/Canada/Brazil | 2015 | Directed by Robert Eggers

Logline: A 17th Century Christian family are plagued by a local witch who uses black magic to infiltrate and ruin their lives. 

It is New England, North America, circa 1630, and William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their four children, teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), have been exiled from their village. A few months later they have re-established themselves in a cottage with a small goat farm, on the edge of a thick forest. But the bad luck has followed them and now it strikes hard. 

Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with the newborn baby, Samuel, and the infant suddenly vanishes; clutched and stolen by a cloaked figure who darts through the forest wilderness with the foulest of agendas. This sets off a chain of events that sees Thomasin being accused of witchcraft and plants the evil seeds of destruction.

The Witch has been riding a broom of intense hype, opening the Sitges Film Festival last year, and receiving much critical acclaim and audience praise. It is so hard these days to avoid hype, to not be affected by it. The social media platforms have given loud voice to everyone’s inner critic, and it’s a harsh and unforgiving realm. Gone are the days when sometimes all you glimpsed of a movie before you saw it in the cinema was a 30-second TV spot, or even just the film poster. You went in cold, and this is arguably the best way to see a movie. 

I resisted reading any reviews of The Witch, but I couldn’t avoid seeing comments posted online from those that had already seen the movie overseas, and it sounded like my kind of horror movie. It certainly proceeds that way; the opening fifteen minutes are excellent. Strong performances from a mostly unknown cast (Ineson and Dickie I recognised from Game Of Thrones), especially Taylor-Joy who essentially carries the movie. The charcoal-grey palette and European 1.66:1 ratio of the cinematography and authentic period costuming and “Olde English” dialogue add a weight of realism to the production, and the truly nightmarish depiction of the hirsute hag preparing her flying ointment gave the movie serious horror punctuation.

The narrative rests entirely on the implosion of the family unit, the paranoia and distrust cracking through the parental pillars, the children’s innocence inexorably corrupted. This is essentially a chamber piece wearing the unctuous shroud of a witchcraftian horror. It’s a pity then that the strongest, most visceral and affecting horror elements were played out so early, and never returned to with the same nightmarish effect. There are missed opportunities, in particular with Black Phillip (the he-goat who Satan uses as a vessel), but chiefly with the witch (portrayed in all her hideous naked glory by Bathsheba Garnett) - and including her voluptuous younger guise (Victoria Secret model Sarah Stephens) - who mysteriously vanishes three-quarters into the movie, to be replaced by Satan in corporeal form (but only the glimpse of a bearded face in deep shadow), who intends to seal the fate of the desperate Thomasin.

But what happened to the twins?

Half way through The Witch I was certain the narrative was going to head toward a particular Salem-style judgment (the movie is actually set around 60 years before the infamous Salem witch trails), but Eggers chooses a different nihilistic path. It’s not the most satisfying denouement, certainly to those who love The Wicker Man or Kill List, both a lot creepier and overwhelming. But to those who normally don’t watch horror movies Eggers debut feature is compelling and will provide some genuinely unsettling moments. As a drama about the fear of God and the manifestation of supernatural evil The Witch succeeds admirably, but as a True Believin’ horror movie it falls short, playing its Ace of Spades too early in the game, instead of those horns of the Sabbat being driven to the hilt (like Baskin), that the second half and, ultimately, the ending so demands.