For horror aficionados, a wood cabin near a creepy forest inhabited by some possibly evil children may not immediately strike them as ‘something different’. But, when mashed together under the supremely confident direction of first time feature filmmaker Robert Eggers, and combined with a 17th Century language and mythos, The Witch becomes something very separate from almost anything else on the horror market. Eschewing jump scares almost entirely in favour of a slow but powerful dread that seeps right into your bones, Eggers deploys almost every possible trick available to a horror director without resorting to any cheap clichés.
From the off, the first thing you notice is just how authentic the whole thing feels. Opening on a speech from the patriarch (Ralph Ineson) of the family that is set to be bewitched, it’s immediately clear that the in-depth research conducted by Eggers into the speech patterns and vocabulary of the day has paid off. He creates a world in which people do not just believe in the supernatural, they actively know that witches lurk in the dark, waiting to do Satan’s bidding. This heightened Puritan hysteria infects every inch of The Witch, making it brutally tense before anything demonic even occurs.
But occur it does, and pretty soon into the film as well. It doesn’t take long after the family moves to unoccupied land in front of a foreboding forest for The Witch to make it very clear that any fears the family has about the presence of Satan are well-founded. As she looks after her baby brother, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) turns her eyes away from him for a second, which is all it takes for the witch to snatch him. Her mother (Kate Dickie) is distraught, and her horrible younger twin siblings (played with impressively soul-piercing malice by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), who seem to have made a pact with the devilish goat Black Philip, are doing nothing to help matters.
Thomasin’s brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) offers some solace from this mad family, providing normal conversation and one of the few near-functional relationships within the film. However, even he cannot help but notice the fact that his older sister’s body is changing, a process he can’t keep his eyes off. Before magic even enters the equation, he’s under her spell, and when they go off to the woods together to gather food, with only Thomasin returning after their horse and dog are spooked, suspicions are raised.
It’s to Eggers’ great credit that the obvious metaphors of reaching sexual maturity are handled with a light touch, informing everything that’s going on without beating the audience over the head with it. Sexuality is both a weapon and a curse in the world of The Witch. Salem’s infamous witch hunts are not too far away from when the film takes place, and the inherent distrust of women keeps the intensity humming away, even in simple family dinner scenes. Interestingly, it’s Thomasin’s mother who initially suspects her daughter of being a witch, while her father takes a lot more convincing – there is no fellowship amongst women here.
After Caleb finally returns to the farm following his disappearance into the forest, things really begin to spiral out of control. He’s suffering from some sort of sickness with no apparent earthly cause, and the sequences that follow his re-entry into the house had me shaking in my seat. Up until this point, The Witch is properly scary, but it moves into manic fear territory in its middle act. The very sparing use of blood makes its precisely calibrated appearances even more chilling. Menstruation metaphors abound during these sequences, but it’s quite often too scary to appreciate the nuanced allegories fully while you’re watching them.
Selling this horror is a superb cast, with Ineson and Dickie providing great turns as tortured parents trying to balance fundamentalist religion with their human instincts. The kids are truly exceptional, with all the younger siblings completely capable of not just reacting to a horrifying situation, but creating some themselves. Taylor-Joy is a real find in the lead role, enigmatic enough to lend Thomasin some necessary mystique without losing the emotional hold of the role. How much you enjoy the slightly barmy ending will depend on how far you’ve bought into this world of 17th century ghoulishness, but I think The Witch absolutely sticks the landing with a finale that is both crazy and entirely plausible, not to mention brilliant. An astoundingly assured debut, The Witch is 90 minutes of pure terror that will make you think twice about ever visiting an isolated country house.