Every year amongst the haunted house retreads and cyclical sequels, the horror genre runs its bony fingers down the blackboard, walks over your grave, and manages to imprint indelible images and fear into your waking life. Last year it was “It Follows”, and now it’s the turn of Robert Eggers’ insidious chiller to put an uncomfortable spell on you with its tale of New England paganism, screaming banshees, and possession.
When a family of English Puritans are cast asunder from their plantation for an unspeakable and unspecified reason, they settle in a field within close proximity to the woodland. The patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) vows to “conquer this wilderness”, and grows crops with which to feed his family; wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and her newborn Samuel, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her brother Caleb, and the twins.
They are a God-fearing family, and for all intents and purposes, a normal one, until Thomasin’s game of peek-a-boo with her baby brother ends with him vanishing, with only the rustle of the bushes giving any clue to his fate. Distraught by his abduction, the family begin to emotionally crumble, with fingers pointed and blame assigned, and the growing feeling that with their corn plagued, they might all be cursed by a pointy nosed wiccan.
An exercise in slow burn, even at 90 minutes, “The Witch” finds a way of getting under your skin and unsettling you. Whether this is in its use of subtle techniques, such as the reverse Terrence Malick style shots of dead birds, the blood-red milk of a goat, or some honking great soundtrack accompanied by wailing harpies, you’re guaranteed to gradually end up in a state of unease.
Eggers roots proceedings firmly in the realm of myth making and folklore. His script has a real Hansel and Gretel feel to it, which is referenced in one of the film’s stand-out sequences in which our witch becomes seductress in order to entice a child into her cottage. Influences such as “The Wicker Man” and 1971 late-night classic “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” are worn firmly on the film’s sleeve, but The Witch feels resolutely original throughout.
The cast are uniformly superb, with “Game of Thrones” and “The Office” alumnus Ralph Ineson excelling as the guilt-ridden rather, hiding his own secrets whilst trying to unearth those kept by his family.
It’s Anya Taylor-Joy who steals the film, though, with a raw performance as a girl burdened by womanhood, grief, and an awareness of the situation. Employing an affected manner of speech that sits perfectly, she is our level-headed character upon which to project, so when her path begins to derail during the last act lunacy, you’re fully invested in her fate.
“The Witch” is a horror movie that requires an abandonment of cynicism and a set of expectations for a film that isn’t designed to make you jump like the laziest of genre efforts. If you let it, the film gets in your gut and twists.