Riding a wave of expectation fuelled by an extended tour of film festivals around the world, premiering at Sundance in January 2016 and most recently at the Glasgow Youth Film Festival in February 2016, the feature debut of writer/director Robert Eggers has much to live up to, especially amongst the often excitable horror community, ever eager for the fright of their next fix.
Filmed in rural Ontario, the unforgiving coldness of the land and unending trees double for New England in the early seventeenth century where a family has been excommunicated from their church and exiled from their community for the refusal of their father to conform. Judging, sombre faces fill the room as the decision is handed down, but William (Game of Thrones’ Ralph Ineson) remains pious and defiant as he sets his family upon a rickety cart and they depart for the forested horizon.
Sitting in silence and darkness, facing the fire, their backs to the ever present trees, they claim a spot of land for their own and establish their farm and homestead, the proud and determined William, the hard-faced but loyal Katherine (Outcast’s Kate Dickie), blossoming daughter Thomasin (Atlantis’ Anya Taylor-Joy), eager son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), mischievous twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and newborn Samuel.
Given the responsibility of an adult but treated like a child, Thomasin has been brought up to believe she was born in sin, that she must ask forgiveness for being who she is. Playing peek-a-boo with Samuel on the grassland between the farm and the treeline beyond which they are not allowed to venture, Thomasin covers her eyes for a moment and her baby brother has vanished.
The family blaming a wolf when there can be no other explanation, it is the first tragedy of a downward spiral which besets them, Katherine unable to cope with the loss of her child, William’s directionless anger exacerbated by the failing crops. With Jonas and Mary singing to the goat they have named Black Philip, Caleb asks his father if the unbaptised Samuel is in Hell, while washing clothes on the riverbank Thomasin is plagued by the childish taunts of Mary to which she responds with a fury which will unravel them all.
As much about what is not is there as what is, The Witch is filmed almost entirely in natural light, the muted greys of the misty days giving way to the flickering candles of the night, while off in the forest there are hints of shadowed blood rituals under the moon, the only splash of colour the deep red cloak of the woman Caleb finds while hunting in the forest, the falling curls of her hair and full curves of her breasts a tempting mystery unlike anything he has experienced in his young life.
With a sparse soundtrack by Mark Korven (Vincenzo Natali’s Cube), the occasional use of a wordless choir imbues the trees with the same power as the Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that sense heightened as the voices rise again in the final scenes as Kubrick did with both the descent into the Tycho excavation and the encounter among the moons of Jupiter.
Driven by desperation, privation and dwindling hope, Katherine deals in absolutes and cannot cope with falsehood, becoming fearful and distrustful of both her husband and her daughter while William is bewildered by circumstances contrary to the promise of his faith where his piety should allow him to provide for his family, but it is Taylor-Joy who carries the film, Thomasin confronted with lies and accusations built upon truths twisted and blown out of proportion.
Principally built on atmosphere rather than event, the locations, the period detail of the sets and the costumes and the performances are all exquisite and flawless, but it is too obviously derivative of the standard text of religious fervour justifying persecution, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, though told within a single family rather than a community, the isolation amplifying each stage of their downfall into religious hysteria and bloody recrimination
Neither is this a new conceit for the horror genre, with Piers Haggard’s 1970 folk horror The Blood on Satan’s Claw having told much the same story in a similar way, and though it is undeniably well told, evoking the paranoia and misery of that rough and superstitious time, without sufficient originality ultimately the spell cast by The Witch is simultaneously powerful and disappointing.