“The Witch” is one of the most buzzed about horror films of the year, and Fantastic Festers got their first look at its festival premiere on September 28, 2015. And true to it’s stellar word of mouth, this disturbing period piece from first-time director Robert Eggers, went over to rapturous applause.
“The Witch” deals with a devoutly religious Puritan family, who have been driven out of a plantation town for an unknown transgression. Undaunted they take up roots in isolated countryside adjacent to a dense forest. But their bad luck continues when their infant son disappears under eldest daughter Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) supervision. It’s a nerve rattling opening scene, which introduces us to the title character in question, (but only in shadowy, discordant fashion).
Thomasin can hold no favor with her harsh mother (“Game of Thrones’s” Kate Dickie), who grows continuously cold to her and her blossoming womanhood while her father (Ralph Ineson) is a stubborn, arrogant man determined to reshape their woodland trappings in his image: “We will conquer this wilderness” he tells his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). “It will not consume us.” But when the search for their infant turns futile, his words seem all the more foolish.
The family turn even stronger to religion, convinced it will bring salvation: but their every single waking act seems to invoke sin, and the rest of the day is spent praying for forgiveness. But Thomasin has an air of defiance, which creates a lack of trust with her family, that escalates even further when more tragic and macabre events plague them savagely.
“The Witch” is a unique combination of folk tale (much of the dialogue is lifted from actual documents from the era), horror film, as well as coming-of-age. Despite the parents religious fervor, Thomasin, Caleb and their younger twin siblings, remain susceptible to temptation. And that’s all the doorway to black magic that the film needs.
The set design and costumes are fantastic, and the cinematography is superb, but it’s ultimately the nuanced, graceful performances that push the film into its exalted acclaim. Taylor-Joy is a revelation as the lead, never being overtly obvious of her intentions, which inspires doubt in the viewer. These amplify the jolts Eggers expertly stages in the film.
“The Witch” draws comparisons to films like “Kill List”, “The Wicker Man”, and “The Blood On Satan’s Claw”, but offers a more isolationist feel akin to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, made even more so by Mark Korven’s unnerving score (although it feels overpowering at times). The film may be too ambiguous and open to interpretation to appeal to traditional horror fans, but it’s a stellar achievement for a first time director, feeling authentic to the era in which its based, but infused with a moral dilemma of faith versus reality that still feels as timely as ever.