by Matt Levine
First-time directors throughout the history of film have turned to the horror genre to make an indelible mark. “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis made a living knocking out schlocky horror pics on minuscule budgets; John Carpenter defined a subgenre with his first feature, Halloween (1978). David Lynch avoided the confines of the horror genre per se, but still made terrifying early shorts and one of the most hauntingly beautiful feature debuts with Eraserhead (1977); and a few decades later, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, with the help of some shrewd and influential online marketing, made blurry handheld video truly frightening in The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Director: Robert Eggers
Producers: Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy
Writer: Robert Eggers
Cinematographer: Jarin Blaschke
Editor: Louise Ford
Music: Mark Korven
Cast: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett
Premiere: January 23, 2015 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 19, 2016
US Distributor: A24
There’s something about the genre’s heated emotions and heightened aesthetic that clearly appeals to budding filmmakers, but there is little that’s easy or sensationalistic about The Witch. Helmed by writer-director Robert Eggers—who cut his teeth on eerie short films like The Tell-Tale Heart (2008) and Monster (2010)--The Witch is clever and meticulous in its scares, drawing upon the legacy of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Like many of the best horror movies, The Witch recognizes that the greatest evils come not from demons or ghosts but from the baseness of human nature—the darkest corners of our souls which we try to keep concealed. If The Witch is too humorless for its own good, that at least befits a movie about overzealous piety subjecting humans to the very sins they try so desperately to silence.
The film is set in an America that could still convince itself it was blessed by God: 1630s New England, decades before the Salem witch trials yet clearly afflicted by the same dogmatic atmosphere. A family has emigrated from England to a colony in the New World, only to uproot themselves again when their dogged patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), abandons the church for what he sees as their insufficient reverence. He preaches moral rectitude to his family, but they’re hardly a flawless group: his lonely wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) seems jealously hostile to their teenage daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has recently had her first period and whose budding cleavage attracts the shameful, incestuous looks of her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). The family’s younger twins, meanwhile—Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson)—enjoy tormenting everyone and soon begin having ominous conversations with the farm’s goat, which they allege is named Black Phillip. There’s also an infant boy in tow, though he’s destined for a very brief life.
Evil isn’t far from this family to begin with, but it takes tangible form when they move to a tiny cabin bordering a gray, nightmarish forest. After a brief prologue, Eggers disarms you with one of the movie’s most disturbing scenes: Thomasin plays peekaboo with her infant brother on the border of the woods, only to have him vanish in the blink of an eye. The next moments provide some of the scariest images in recent cinematic memory, so unsettling mostly because they’re inexplicable: a coarse length of rope that seems to stretch into the bowels of hell, a bloodstained mortar and pestle emerging from the shadows, a pale, naked figure wheezing in front of it.
If you feel a slow shiver spread over you during this scene, it might not subside for the remainder of the movie. The Witch might be dour but it’s never boring: the chills escalate from here, unafraid to make a potentially silly idea unshakably scary. There’s a sinister goat and a rabbit with piercing eyes that bring to mind the “chaos reigns” fox in Antichrist; the most terrifying moment in my eyes (which also happens to be grotesquely beautiful) involves a hallucinating mother and a vicious, cackling crow. Such brazen, potentially absurd moments are well served by the movie’s reserved, minimal tone; it plays like a folktale, a parable of damnation scrawled in an Olde English Bible.
The Witch never overplays its allegory, but its depiction of feverish piety leading to self-damnation is clearly not confined to the seventeenth century. It’s an exploration of good and evil, certainly, but even more so a reminder that good and evil are not so easily separated—that often they spring from the same impulse, a desire to be stoic and self-effacing in confronting a vast natural world. It only takes a slight push in a morbid direction to destroy this family, to force them to demonize and berate each other, to lock them in muddy stables and tie them to the bedposts until demons are exorcized. If this austere American family, so prideful of its goodness and its deep spirituality, can be corrupted so easily, what does that say about the rest of us who proclaim to be moral but are capable of so much worse?
Although Eggers and his cast and crew achieve a very specific aesthetic with exacting precision, that's not to say the movie is perfect. Jarin Blaschke’s grim cinematography might as well have been shot in black-and-white, and although that colorless pallor contributes to The Witch’s bleak intensity, it also makes the film visually flat and unappealing. (Some of these scenes would have been made more terrifying by a vivid color palette and easily discernible images, rather than less so.) The cast also has varying levels of success: while Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable as young Thomasin (the believability of her character makes the film’s ending that much more unsettling), Ralph Ineson (of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones fame) has little to do but growl in his singular, room-shaking rasp. (This isn’t entirely a complaint.) And although I’d rather have a young horror director emulate Kubrick rather than Friday the 13th or Scream, Eggers’ film sometimes lives too obviously in the shadow of The Shining, especially with a musical score that mimics the shrieking strings of Krzysztof Penderecki.
A hungry horror fan shouldn’t complain, though, and The Witch is both as scary and as striking as enamored Sundance critics claimed last year. Eggers has a few bad habits to break—or, at least, he could break them and make something wholly unique and powerful—but in any case this seems to broadcast a promising directorial career and an uncanny grasp on what makes audiences tick, both viscerally and mentally. “A New England Folktale,” reads an early subtitle, and although The Witch ably evokes the devil-fearing puritanism of early American colonies, its ending reveals something more timeless and unsettling: a figure of innocence succumbing to the evil she’s kept at bay, driven to darkness by what she was told was moral rectitude. It’s a folktale for any time.