Evil takes many forms.

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This week, Robert Eggers‘ much anticipated film The Witch crept into theaters, drawing in horror fans, young and old, who have been eagerly watching the clips A24 has been systematically releasing.  Last night, I hopped on my broomstick and flew to my local movie theater to see it.  I was not disappointed.  Far from it.

The Witch opens in a New England meeting house.  The year is 1630 – ten years after the beginning of the Puritan migration from England to New England.  A deeply religious English farmer, William, has apparently been having problems with the local government.  He and his family, consisting of his wife Katherine and four children, Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy, and Jonas, are banished from the town.  They take their livestock and set out into the wilderness.

The family settles in an area by the edge of a forest with the intention of cultivating crops.  Months later, they have a house, a barn, a few corn stalks, and a new baby.  We see the teenaged Thomasin praying for forgiveness for her sins.  Shortly after, she takes the new baby from her mother so that the latter can tend to the crops.  When Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with the baby, he disappears without a trace.

From there, the film takes a sharp twist, going from creepy and tense, to downright horrifying.  The audience finds themselves as flies on the wall, witnessing the steady decay of the family.  We watch Katherine lose herself in religion and William struggle to keep his family afloat, despite failing crops and diseased animals.  We see Caleb wrestle with his faith while simultaneously entering puberty, and watch the twins, Mercy and Jonas, gain a growing attachment to their goat, Black Phillip.  Most importantly, we look on as Thomasin, wracked with guilt over the baby’s disappearance, struggles with her newly strained relationship with her family, and later, fights to stay alive when she is accused of witchcraft.

The horror in The Witch comes in two layers.  The first layer is visceral.  During the film, we’re given some terrifically gruesome and disturbing scenes and images.  We witness the baby’s fate, and watch helplessly as Caleb is lured into the woods, returning delirious and possessed.  Toward the end, we see the titular witch play a particularly horrifying mind trick on Katherine.

The second layer of horror is purely psychological.  As the family members find themselves in dire and direr straits, they begin to turn on each other.  Katherine develops a deep distrust of Thomasin.  Mercy and Jonas pick up on the bad blood and accuse Thomasin of being a witch when Caleb returns after his disappearance; they even pretend to be afflicted when the family prays for Caleb– or is it just pretend? If you’ve read or seen The Crucible by Arthur Miller, the notorious court scene comes to mind.  The loyalty within the family quickly wears thin, and the betrayal that follows is brutal.  The film isn’t just about supernatural, Satanic evil; it’s about the bare bones of the human experience, filled with judgement, blame, and suspicion in response to the unknown.

Most impressive about The Witch is the incredible acting performances.  Anya Taylor-Joy inspires sympathy and fear in her first starring role.  She is supported by the talented child actors Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson.  Ralph Ineson nails the part of a pious man hanging by a thread, and Kate Dickie gives a gut-wrenching performance as mother driven mad with grief.

Another noteworthy point is the film’s historical authenticity. According to an interview published on The Verge, writer/ director Robert Eggers conducted research for five years before making his first feature film.  And it shows.  Everything about the film, right down to the dialogue (think a lot of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’), screams Puritan New England.  The afflictions that the children experience and the devilish imagery? Straight out of historical records and ‘eye-witness’ accounts.  The authenticity and attention to detail is bolstered by the fact that the film takes place sixty-nine years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials occurred. It’s easy to understand why Eggers won Best Director at Sundance.

The Witch runs for a total of one hour and thirty-three minutes, and admittedly, most of the film is slow, relying heavily on the austere setting and the minefield of religious fanaticism that was rampant in Puritan culture.  The pacing however, does not detract from the film overall, and the payoff, the climax, makes the slow burn worth every second.

Bottom line: The Witch is a masterful blend of psychological and supernatural terror.  If you’re a fan of period horror films, slow burning movies, and folkloric tales of terror, The Witch may just be the perfect film for you.

'The Witch' Is Nightmarish Perfection
'The Witch' is the perfect horror film for lovers of psychological thrillers and supernatural terror.
'The Witch' Overall Score10
  • Incredible historical authenticity
  • Compelling story with plenty of twists and turns
  • Has an atmosphere of dread that carries over throughout the entire film
  • Slow pacing
  • Period dialect and dialogue may be difficult to understand
10Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)