Historical horror combines pilgrims and paranoia
The Witch (2016)
Directed by Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
The Witch, the ominous and intricately constructed writing-directing debut from production and costume designer Rob Eggers, comes with the attached subtitle “A New England Folktale.” That’s probably a better descriptor than the “horror” label with which it’s been saddled. As a horror film, it’s too slow-going to actually instill fear in most mainstream audiences. As a dark supernatural drama, however, it’s moody, chilling and frequently quite effective.
The film is set in 1630, some years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials rocked early America. In an uptight Puritan courtroom we are introduced to William (Ralph Ineson from “Game of Thrones”), a devout family man who’s in the process of being kicked out of his community because the leaders have accused him of blasphemy. William insists he’s only following the “true word of Jesus” and slams his fellow settlers as “false Christians.” So basically, this guy is being ejected from the Puritans for thumping his Bible a little too hard. Wow. In the early 17th century, being banished from your community could be a death sentence. But William, his loyal wife (Kate Dickie, also from “Game of Thrones”) and his five children bear up stoically under the village elders’ ruling and trundle off into the rough New England woods alone.
Months later the family has constructed a credible farmstead and is trying their best to make a go of it. Bearing the brunt of this burden is teenaged Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy from BBC America’s “Atlantis”), the oldest of the children. Things go from bad to worse, though, when Tomasin’s baby brother vanishes in front of her eyes. Dad blames a wolf. Mom blames Tomasin. The younger kids are pretty sure a witch was involved. Tomasin doesn’t know what to think.
Ultimately, The Witch is more interested in historical, psychological and religious truths than in jump scares and severed limbs. With the dark woods enveloping them, suggesting all manner of peripheral eldritch horror, poor Tomasin’s family descends into paranoia and mistrust. Mom accuses her of sleeping with the devil. She accuses her twin siblings of communing with goats. Dad accuses everybody of not praying hard enough. Is William’s farm struggling with rotting crops because it’s been cursed by a devil-worshiping witch or is he just a lousy farmer whose spiritual pride has doomed his family? Has Tomasin been seduced by the power of Satan or is she just hitting puberty? Is her younger brother possessed by the devil or a really bad fever? Are the twins seeing actual supernatural entities in the primordial woods or are they simply imaginative little kids making shit up?
Eggers’ script allegedly lifts whole conversations from actual witch trials. The cast (particularly the commanding Mr. Ineson) does an admirable job navigating the thick, stylized dialogue (filled to the brim with Biblical “thee”s and “thou”s). It’s rare to encounter a film—particularly a horror film—so deeply concerned with the concept of sin. It’s easy to see how much the idea obsesses the people in this film—and how such fervent, oppressive beliefs could have led to the madness of the Witch Trials. Lust, sloth, greed and a host of others bedevil this family on a daily basis. If you believe wholeheartedly in the literal text of the Bible—as early Puritans surely did—then the mere, passing thought of a sin is a one-way ticket to Hell. And that’s a pretty scary cross to bear. The temptation to blame all your ills on some outside source—absolving yourself in the process—is mighty.
Whether you adapt to its high-minded chilliness or not, you’ll be forced to admit The Witch looks and feels like few other horror films. With its impenetrable forests, hardscrabble farms and gray-faced residents, it’s like some long-lost film from Bergman’s grindhouse period. (No, Bergman did not have a grindhouse period—but it’s intriguing to think of.) Smart, psychological, historically accurate and curious about a great many things, the film has a literary air to it. Rest assured, there is a witch in The Witch. But it’s a minor element, really. In fact, it should probably have been even smaller. When it’s dealing in spiritual and psychological ambiguity, The Witch casts a powerful spell. When it settles on more concrete boogeymen—as in the film’s final, hurried act—it loses a lot of its grim impact. Had Mr. Eggers gone the Dario Argento route, pushing his narrative even further into the hallucinatory and phantasmagorical, he could have produced a truly transgressive piece of shock cinema. Instead, we get an intriguing suggestion of things to come.