One of the hallmarks of the quiet horror movie renaissance that’s been bubbling up over the past few years is the shift away from slasher gore, torture porn and jump scares that has come to define the mainstream examples of the genres since the 1980’s. Films like The Babadook or Under the Skin or It Follows instead trade on that inescapable, suffocating sense of dread and helplessness that comes from being thoroughly outclassed by the enemy pursuing its protagonists. While it is true that many slasher films operate on a similar axis or dread and inescapability, the catharsis that comes from the eventual bloodbath, mortifying as it may be, releases the tension periodically. This current brand of horror seems to take their cues from the last scene of The Blair Witch Project, relying on obfuscation and confusion to unnerve and unease the audience that is never adequately explained. The tension never releases. The newest example of this trend is The Witch, from first time feature writer/director Robert Eggers, Eggers won the directing award at Sundance in 2015 for the film, and after a year on the festival circuit, it finally receives a wide release this weekend.
The Puritan family at the center of The Witch are the sort of God-fearing folk you would expect to find living in Massachusetts in the 1630’s. Faced with the possibility of excommunication from their church, patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) instead chooses to move his family to a remote farm far away from town on the border of a forest. The farm is blighted and almost entirely incapable of producing edible produce, putting quite a bit of strain on his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, probably the most recognizable face of the cast after her run on Game of Thrones), their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson). Things take a turn for the worse when the infant of the family, Samuel, disappears right from under the eyes of Thomasin, never to be found again. Foul deeds begin to encroach on their little outpost, and the twins become convinced that there is a sinister presence in the woods, and that Thomasin might have something to do with it.
Considering its prominence in popular culture and American folklore, it’s puzzling that the 17th century hysteria that led to the Salem Witch Trials has not been the feature of more films over the years. The Crucible is the most notable of these, but the subject remains surprisingly undertilled ground. The logline of The Witch describes it as “A New England folktale,” and such a statement could not be more apt. It might be a bit odd to describe the family at the center of the film as relatable, as their 17th century Christianity feels almost alien to modern society, but they also feel undeniably American, banished from their homeland and forced to make a go of it in the unknown. There is a genuineness to the script, which we come to learn at film’s end is because much of the dialogue was taken from first person accounts of the time period. This may not claim to be a true story, but it feels like a sincere take on the hysteria of the time, a dark period in our history but an undeniably fascinating one. And when you mix in that aspect of the occult, the forbidden, the indecent, and it makes for a taboo cocktail that piques the curiosity and draws you into its world. Which is right where Eggers wants you.
His cast is meticulously constructed to reinforce that sense, from Ralph Ineson’s booming and commanding, almost malevolent speech setting the tone, to be contrasted by the young twins’ youthful exuberance that slowly tempers over the course of the film as the safety of the farm is continually compromised. Fear is the motivating factor here, whether it’s fear of the patriarch, fear of God, fear of the woods or fear of starvation, and no one exemplifies that better than the film’s star, Anya Taylor-Joy. She is the eyes and ears of the story, an innocent (or is she?) implicated by the hysteria of those around her as a part of all this, even though she is just as frightened and confused and lost as the rest of them. Their farm seems to be located in a world where the sun has ceased to exist, enveloping the film in a grim dark, the smoke from their chimney curling across the wilderness like fog on Scottish moors. The forest is spare and forbidding, a skeleton of leafless trees that hide untold dangers. The sound design pitches up every crackling leaf underfoot, every snapped twig. Mark Korven’s score is all raspy strings and wailing chants (think Ligeti’s “Requiem” as used in 2001: A Space Odyssey), everything meticulously designed to generate and foment inescapable dread right through its harrowing and skin-crawlingly disturbing final act.
The genius of The Witch lies in how it manages to present the sort of horror tropes that we’ve seen before, whether it’s the blighted ground or a foreboding woodland animal looking on from afar or blood where it should not be, and twists them into something otherworldly and profane and obscene, something that should not be and cannot be but is. The Witch does not hide its malevolence offscreen, but it does not overplay its hand either, opting instead for disjointed flashes of...something...that so often defies description. Anything and everything seems possible, and Eggers uses that unease to his advantage by pumping the gas sparingly but with bone-chilling effectiveness. Many have commented on the scares of The Babadook or It Follows, but they pale in comparison to the slow burning blanket of dread and fear that Eggers drapes over his audience. It is difficult not to be jaded or desensitized by horror these days after so many decades of the same mechanics played out in the same ways, but Eggers’ tale of terror is so deliriously confident and uncompromising that it is impossible not to fall under his spell. This is horror as it is meant to be, and one of the best examples of the genre you could possibly imagine. And all of it coming from a first time director. Masterful.