There’s a genuine sense of unease that permeates through nearly every scene of the striking new horror movie The Witch, which bowed to some rave reviews at last year’s Sundance film festival and is now being rolled out in cinemas across the globe.
Coming from writer-director Robert Eggers, making his feature film debut, The Witch tells the story of a 17th-century New England family that is forced to leave their small Puritan village after patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) challenges the leadership.
Right from the first frames, Eggers establishes a sense of time and place – and atmosphere – that sets the tone for the film to come; while early scenes of the family marching out to embark on a life of their own could set the stage for any number of storylines, there’s a pervasive dread right from the get-go that tells us things aren’t at all right.
What transpires might be compared to the descent into madness out of something like Polanski’s Repulsion, only it affects an entire family instead of a single isolated girl.
In particular focus is teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who watches her newborn baby sister disappear in front of her eyes during a creepy game of peek-a-boo.
This sends mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) into a spiral of depression, while William tries in vain to locate the missing baby and maintain family’s farm so they may survive the upcoming winter. Elder son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), attempts to help out, with some disastrous results.
Then there’s the family’s creepy young twins, who seem to speak in tongues and communicate with the farm’s black billy goat (likely the scariest goat ever put on film). As an unknown outside force imposes on the family, they turn on each other with equal vigor.
And all the while, out in the woods, there’s the titular witch. Who she is, what she wants, how she operates is never detailed. She is, simply, evil, and Eggers is smart to never explain her away; the less we know, the scarier she becomes.
Besides being a genuinely effective scareshow, The Witch is a first-rate production in almost every other regard, with Eggers’ displaying incredible grasp of tone and pacing. The cast, comprised of unfamiliar faces, is first-rate; Ineson and particularly young Taylor-Joy give us sympathetic characters we can really care about.
Horror films have been making strides on the indie/festival circuit the past few years, but I’ve been unimpressed with the likes of It Follows or The Babadook.
Not so here: The Witch is a real-deal shocker, and well worth catching in the cinema.