The Witch (2015)

A New-England Folktale

For many, Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the crackling Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939) has become synonymous with the term ‘witch.’ However, centuries before Hamilton donned the green makeup or The Blair Witch Project (1999) scared the pants off worldwide moviegoers, many God-fearing folk actually believed that witches were real and that women practiced magic that threatened the patriarchy of the Church, the popular view being that Satan was very much alive and active on Earth. This hysteria reached a fever pitch in New England 1692 with the Salem witch trials, an era that saw scores of women executed for charges of consorting with the devil. Now, writer-director Robert Eggers (in his feature debut) takes us back to the aforementioned paranoia in The Witch (or The VVitch), a meticulously crafted atmospheric thriller that struggles to generate the gut-wrenching screams its A-grade production so desperately tries to summon.

I came, I saw, I conjured
I came, I saw, I conjured

Set in New England 1630, The Witch opens on a man named William (Ralph Ineson), a simple farmer who is excommunicated from a his Puritan Christian plantation (along with his spouse and children) for the sin of prideful conceit. Forced to relocate to a remote part of land on the edge of an ominous forest, the family — William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) — must learn to fend for themselves. Alarming events begin to take shape immediately after the exiled folk settle — animals go feral, crops fail, while their fifth child, Samuel, goes missing in the woods. With fear and suspicion mounting, certain members of the unit begin to suspect the teenaged Thomasin of witchcraft — chiefly after she attempts to scare her twin siblings with jokes alluding to her satanic heritage — charges she unwaveringly denies. Alas, as the situation becomes direr, each family member’s faith, loyalty and love are tested in ghastly and unimaginable ways.

Shot on a shoestring budget by Robert Eggers (a former production designer), The Witch has a lot going for it even though it falls short of achieving greatness by its close. First and foremost, the picture looks excellent — from the foreboding woods to the dark contours of the farmhouse — it’s clear that Eggers and his production designer Craig Lathrop, Wolves (2014), have spent a considerable amount of time recreating this eerie North American colonial setting — the costumes, structures, tools and resources are all spot on, this authenticity truly serving the narrative. With Northern Ontario subbing for the New England woodlands, the misty environment also makes for a compelling nightmarish arena, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Fray (2012), enhancing the film’s bleak, secluded atmosphere. Sadly, the decision to have characters speak in Old English (the common tongue of the agricultural people), while accurate, might be a little alienating, seeing as it’s a bit difficult to follow the story at certain points.

Deliver Us from Evil
Deliver Us from Evil

With the crux of the narrative centering on the family’s struggle to maintain faith in light of a devastating tragedy, The Witch tackles a number of bold, powerful themes. Eggers looks at religious zealotry and superstition — he touches on the idea of original sin and what it might mean to invite the devil into one’s life — along with sexual awakening — a scene where Caleb wrestles with his prepubescent urges after glancing his older sister’s exposed cleavage illustrates this well — while the film’s controversial final moments could be an allegory for suppressed femininity, Thomasin breaking away from her puritanical oppression. Furthermore, the titular witch is never seen properly, this ambiguity rising tension as viewers are never quite sure if the creature exists or if it’s just a manifestation of the family’s religious fervor.

Without the excessive gore of say, the Saw (2004) franchise or the jump-scares of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), The Witch relies solely on its mood, surroundings and curious static shots for chills. Sadly, depending on one’s overall investment in the narrative and its main players, the picture’s third act might come across as unintentionally funny or comical, particularly when Black Phillip (the 210-pound Billy Goat who’s been infecting the group) reveals his true voice or the movie’s final scene which involves a coven of nude witches.

Performances from this relatively unknown cast are all top notch. Ralph Ineson, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), certainly looks the part as William, the family man trying to hold his clan together in the midst of their breakdown, while his co-star Kate Dickie, Red Road (2006), is solid as his wife Katherine, Dickie capturing the character’s slow, deranged progression into madness. Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is the clear standout as the blonde-haired, pixie-faced Thomasin, Taylor-Joy bringing conviction to her character’s physical and emotional turmoil as she grapples with her Puritan adolescence in the remote backwoods, along with the hysterical accusations of black magic by her kin who are looking for someone to blame for their misfortune. Last but not least, Harvey Scrimshaw delivers a multilayered rendering of Caleb, mainly the startling transformation that sees Caleb slip from a state of ecstasy into something more demonic.

'I'm sorry, but I think I failed my spelling test.'
‘I’m sorry, but I think I failed my spelling test.’

Drawing on Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible for inspiration, along with other period sources such as folktales, witch pamphlets, tabloid newspapers (from back in the day), the Geneva Bible, Puritan diaries and even court documents, The Witch is an accurate look at witchcraft in the 1600s, one that’s only marginally frightening due to a lack of traditional scares. Winning the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Witch stands as assured evidence that Robert Eggers is a talent to look out for. Although this devilish cauldron might be missing a few essential ingredients, I’d say its wicked brew is still worth a taste.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Witch is released through Universal Pictures Australia