With a tight budget of $1 million and a terrifying vision, Robert Eggers proves himself to be a natural-born film maker, intelligent and ambitious enough to create a truly immersive viewing experience that will linger long after you leave the movie theatre. The Witch is a ‘folklore tale’ about a zealously pious family who were excommunicated from a Puritan community, now living in self-exile on a farm somewhere in New England. When the youngest of the clan mysteriously disappears, fear and paranoia set in and the family begins to unravel. It soon becomes clear that something unnatural is at work and not long before accusations of witchcraft put the family on a road to no return.
What is so striking about this horror film is that, well, it’s pitched as a ‘horror’ film at all. The Witch defies all the exhausted conventions of the genre that audiences have become begrudgingly accustomed to. Thankfully, a recent new-wave of horror has emerged from arthouse directors and Eggers debut serves as another welcome addition to the trend. Film makers are increasingly ditching the tired methods of the genre and are instead opting for a deeply psychological slow-burn approach that tends to negotiate the horror inside us all.
The renovation has experienced success at Sundance, with The Babadook, It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, and now The Witch – for which Eggers won best director – all being met with an overwhelmingly positive critical response and an equally appreciative horror audience. Presumably both were desperate for something a little different from the jump-scare drivel that has clogged the genre for a while. Whether it’s the American teen gore romps (Cabin Fever,the Hostel series,) or uninspired, lazy found-footage fluff (was The Blair Witch Project really that good?), the slow-burn is emphatically distinct, with thematic substance, style and mood satiating the horror fan’s desire for intellect as well as thrill. This brand of film demands patience, but the pay-off is much more substantial.
This certainly applies to The Witch. Eggers’ ability to create, stimulate and toy with a certain mood and then to sustain it from the opening titles to the explosive finale is one of the films many impressive feats. The entire picture is characterised by an overwhelming gloom, largely created by a subtle greyness in colour and the long sliding shots of the vast rural landscape. Both the farm-house and the sorcerous woods that lie beyond are seen and discussed so frequently that they become another character, a tempestuous presence that has an unspoken dark power. This is coupled with an intelligent use of silence beneath the rough Northern accents and seventeenth century dialect, further saturating the piece with melancholic heaviness.
This is intersected, however, by violent bouts of suspense, drama and terror. Eggers creates seamless transitions from the pensive quiet into a nightmare of cacophonic violins, religious Omen-esque choirs and even a meshing of screams at particularly tense moments. Whilst the miserable tone is sustained, Eggers skilfully uses such techniques to energise the film with blood-curdling fright, never letting us forget that this is indeed a horror movie and that yes, we should be scared.
Yet unlike much of mainstream horror, Eggers ensures that style is matched by thematic substance. At its very core, The Witch is a harrowing drama. The viewer is a voyeur, observing a family in crisis who are battling the demons within the domestic space more so than any external evil. Mother and father William (Ineson) and Katherine (Dickie) are adjusting to a new environment with their little tykes Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson). Performances from all involved, particularly Ineson and Joy, are convincing enough to transport viewers into their nightmarish world of Puritan filial hell. We see them try their hardest to make profit, but their best efforts are dogged when all their produce withers. Amidst this instability is the puberty problem of little Caleb, whose wandering eye leads him to quite literally eat the apple, his sexual repressions culminating in a disturbing exorcism and/or orgasm. Exacerbating the situation is a religious fundamentalism that is shaken by a sequence of ‘ungodly providence’. Oh, and of course, there’s the missing baby. Whilst the language, location, dress and beliefs in the film are markedly distinct from modern life, these family problems are certainly not exclusive to their seventeenth-century world.
The same can be said for the films treatment of gender. Accusations of witchcraft in the early-modern period and beyond were overwhelmingly directed toward women. More often than not, the witch in question would be over 40. Having lived their lives caring for their husband and other dependents, these women were unlikely to reproduce. In her Witchcraze, Lyndal Roper argued the concept of a witch ‘assaulted the very possibility of life’. Many of the stories that circulated in village communities would involve witches slaughtering animals, destroying crops and committing infanticidef. This reflects a cultural and political mind set in which woman was synonymous with fertility, the witch figure embodying the anti-mother archetype – supposedly attacking fertility itself.
Images and symbolism of fertility and motherhood are everywhere in The Witch, from the blood squirting from the goats udder to the dead baby chick in the hatched egg. Whilst Thomasin is on the brink of womanhood, the likelihood of her bearing children is hindered when she expresses unwillingness to live with another family in a different village (a woman marrying and reproducing was dependent upon her integrating with other families). Thomasin’s ultimate rejection of society’s definition of womanhood is confirmed in the visceral closing scenes where collective female liberation trumps the social and cultural norm. We suddenly see the film in a different light, one that negotiates female power and implicitly explores feminism. As Eggers himself admits, in The Witch, ‘feminism rises to the top’.
The Witch has already gathered a lot of buzz from critics and audience alike, and it’s not hard to see why. Eggers has marked himself as the front-runner of an up and coming league of arthouse horror heroes. He does this whilst encouraging us to question aspects of modern life, like the role of family and woman. I’m sure the horror world will eagerly await his next artistic venture.