The Witch has arrived on the wave of buzz that we usually only see once or twice a year. Last year that hushed “best horror of the year” rumbling was reserved for It Follows and The Babadook. This year, it’s the turn of Robert Eggers’ debut; a beautifully made, bone-chilling horror about a family in 1630s New England struggling in the face of seemingly endless and increasingly violent misfortune.
Believing his community to have been too lax in its adherence to Christian values, William (Ralph Ineson) takes his family away to a house on the edge of the woods, far from the corrupting influence of their fellow pilgrims. Shortly after their arrival, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes baby Sam to play near the woods, only for him to mysteriously disappear.
As the family struggles to move past the loss, their efforts to survive only seem to result in more misery. Is this hardship the simple fact of frontier life, is God testing their faith, or is there something more sinister at play?
Based on real accounts of witchcraft from the time period, there’s a grim authenticity to much of the film which, combined with the absolute sincerity, gives it a real power. Eggers’ construction of his chosen time and place is stunning. The dialogue, set-design, decoration and costuming are painstakingly detailed and utterly convincing, combining with Jarin Blaschke’s stark cinematography and Mark Korven’s unnerving score to plunge the viewer into this wintry, unforgiving and deeply foreboding landscape.
Survival in this place without support seems nigh-on impossible anyway, but blame must be placed somewhere, and mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in particular finds it easy to point her finger at her eldest child. While William resists blaming Thomasin for Sam’s disappearance, he has to contend with rotting corn, the impending winter and his wife’s increasingly justifiable belief that they have made a terrible mistake coming here. This crucible is a grim, punishingly difficult environment, and as tempers fray, secrets are uncovered and family members lash out, the appeal of someone, or something, being at fault is easy to understand. Once the idea of witchcraft has been raised, mostly thanks to the irrepressible young twins Mercy and Jonas, there’s no going back from that.
But as much as the characters fear the presence of evil, it’s the fear of God which creates the real sense of dread in the film. The concept of original sin makes the disappearance of baby Sam all the more distressing, as they believe that there is a very real chance that he will not have been taken to the kingdom of Heaven. At one point William tells Katherine that he believes that God is punishing them for having taken his goodwill too much for granted. This terror of an angry maker makes a huge impression on eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), whose sense of duty and responsibility is written all over his terrified face as he contends with impure thoughts and a family on the brink of catastrophe.
For the most part Eggers relies on atmosphere, using the setting and the brilliant cast to create an air of dread and danger. When the scares do arrive, they hit hard. The film’s not shy about showing us what is going on, which is something that may split audiences given the po-faced tone. Anyone with a passing familiarity with witch trials will pushed to the edge of their seats by each consecutive problem with the livestock, and the Grimm fairy-tale woods are dangerously alluring.
The work of the cast is absolutely top notch. Ineson balances religious fervour with a surprisingly warm heart, playing a man who loves his family and that this is a trial they must endure. Dickie (Red Road, Game Of Thrones) delivers yet another superb turn, recalling the great Grace Zabriskie as a woman being tormented and struggling to understand why. Scrimshaw is excellent as the earnest, dutiful Caleb, as is Taylor-Joy as a girl on the verge of womanhood who finds herself the subject of terrifying accusations and without anyone to defend her.
This is a intricately made, brilliantly performed and utterly chilling horror about the dark side of faith, and an absolutely fantastic debut. It will be interesting to see how it plays with a wider audience, but that festival buzz is very easy to understand and share. Be sure to catch it.
The Witch is playing at the BFI London Film Festival on 12 and 14 October. Find more information here.