Today I watched Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015)
In 17th Century New England, a family are excommunicated from a puritan plantation and travel deeper into the wilderness to start their own homestead. This family is lead by the patriarch William, played by Ralph Ineson, and his wife Katherine, played by Kate Dickie, They have five children, the eldest daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Son Caleb, played by Harvey Scrimshaw, a pair of young fraternal twins and a newborn babe. Quickly a malignent force in the nearby woods makes itself known as the newborn is stolen while under Thomasin’s watch, stolen by witches to be used in a flying ointment. Meanwhile the family’s crops are failing and William fails to hunt more food, in this time of desperation the family have little to do but pray and accuse each other of witchcraft. At first William defends Thomasin from the rest of the family’s assertions that she, as a young woman going through puberty, must be a witch, but once she says it like it is and points out how much abuse the family is heaping on her, he flips to blaming her as well and then the film gets really freaky.
Right off the bat, themes of religiosity and hysteria are apparent, especially how such ideas exploit and abuse women in a patriarchy. The titular Witch, while a baby stealing force of darkness, is still a symbol of female rebellion against oppressive morality. It’s a freaky film but it is in the family’s religious fundamentalism that empowers the most frightening of scenes. They are confronted with extreme difficulty and tragedy but their way of coping with it tears the family apart more than any black magic ever could, their intense belief in the inherent sinfulness of humanity leads to paranoia, physical and emotional abuse, and dishonesty. Even though the black magic exists in this film’s world and is very frightening, it seems a much better alternative to the authoritarian and patriarchal Christians who treat their daughter as an expendable slave, the satanist adage of it being ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ is illustrated perfectly by this work.
As a technical piece of entertainment, one should be aware of the slow pace this film plays out in. But this unhurried build establishes the very complex characters whose relationships are the core of the horror on offer. The acting is incredible, especially from Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson. Considering that the old film school adage tells you to never work with children or animals, this film does both and gets incredible results, the goat Black Phillip in particular seems to have amassed a cult following including myself. Along with the slow pace, the film builds mood by being extremely dark with many scenes seemingly lit by little more than candle light which has a real claustrophobic effect, the darkness and the wilderness are all around and constantly encroaching.
The Witch is a terrifying experience if you like moody and character driven horror. It is also a film that seems explicitly made for my personal tastes, not only am I always a fan of deep and detail oriented storytelling but I am also constantly fascinated by depictions of black magic and witchery. In the face of moral hypocrisy and tyranny, black magic and evil become forces of liberation and enlightenment. But even if these themes are not your bread and butter, if you can appreciate the true horror of classics like The Exorcist or The Shining, this is a film on that level, it’s a modern classic and will be remembered for decades to come as a true expression of terror. 5/5