The Witch (2016) is the directorial debut of Robert Eggers. It follows the descent of an ostracized Puritan family into paranoia and destruction as they are terrorized by a witch that dwells deep in the New England forests.
Refreshingly, there aren't that many conventionally "scary"moments in the film, despite being billed as a horror movie. If audiences were looking to be bludgeoned with jump scares, loud noises, and grotesque witch imagery, they'll be disappointed. Which is a shame, given that the current iteration of horror movies have lost the ability to distinguish between terror and shock/surprise. It takes almost no skill to get someone to jump out of their seat - just place a crashing sound cue after a drawn out silence, or overload the senses with an explosion of gore. Relying on surprise to carry a film gets tiring. After the adrenaline spike, fear melts away, and eventually becomes expected. On the contrary, what Eggers builds masterfully is constant, increasing terror.
The way suspense is built is incredibly Kubrick like. Just looking at the Shining, there are creepy twins and this family is similarly isolated by a cold, bitter winter. The New England wilderness is oppressive. The cavernous forest trees tower above the family's homestead. The winter is cold and bleak, casting harsh lights and shadows upon all the characters. There is a feeling of oppression, on the surface by the winter's cold and the threat of witchcraft, but underneath, by fear, insecurity, and the overwhelming power of the unknown. The titular witch appears early in the film, accompanied by an ecstatic, hallucinatory chorus of voices, squeaking strings, and dissonance (think the appearance of the Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey). This music continues on throughout the film in various contexts, on top of images of the forest and the wilderness, continuing our fear of what may dwell deep within even when the physical threat is not present. My blood pressure was elevated through the film. Most importantly, the feeling that something terrible might happen was more important than something actually happening - which is exactly the same fearful head space the characters are in.
There are many other things to appreciate about The Witch. The cast is fantastic and newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is quite memorable for her Thomasin, the eldest child in the family. Although the family's intense conservative Christianity is also one of the oppressive forces crushing them, the film escapes caricatures of the family's faith and instead paints them as representatives of the historical period. As with other witch-hunt related narratives, the film has themes of coming of age, finding feminine empowerment, and challenging systems of patriarchy. Perhaps the only difficulty I had in watching The Witch was understanding the spoken dialogue. Eggers opted to go all-out in his authenticity and has his characters speaking in heavily accented archaic English (think Shakespeare). While commendable, I had trouble understanding specific words in certain moments, like when characters whispered.
All in all, the Witch is an impressive directorial debut by Robert Eggers, and is a refreshing horror film that revitalizes the genre. Through this terrifying journey, we learn that witches are not the only things that can destroy us; the evil within our souls can also spell destruction.
Images: A24; Find the film: here.