Witch film is a sub-genre of horror that is underappreciated. Though one could argue that the seminal THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is a classic witch film, criticism tends to focus more on its use of found-footage than the witch herself. Beyond that people’s minds go to either to HOCUS POCUS or to THE CRUCIBLE for witch films. Both of these are great films in their own right, but they tend to skip over witches in SUSPIRIA, HAXAN, and BLACK SUNDAY. With the forthcoming February 2016 release of THE WITCH we finally get an artfully created and bone chilling film about the terror that a witch can unleash upon a god-fearing house.
THE WITCH opens with an exit. A devoutly Christian family is struggling with their small New England village and the father, William (Ralph Ineson) vows to take his family away from the settlement. Were this a contemporary tale he would have his choice of many towns or cities to find a new home, but in the 1630s there are few options. He uproots his wife and four children to a clearing on the edge of the woods, somewhere a full day’s travel from the town. The spot has land for farming and a stream for water, and within a year they have a solid home, barn, and the start of an autumn crop. A baby son is born in this time lapse, to the delight of the whole family.
When we rejoin the family one year into their seclusion all is well. That quickly takes a turn when the baby, Samuel, disappears in the blink of an eye. One moment the oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is playing peek-a-boo with the cooing babe, the next she is staring at empty swaddle. This is the beginning of this family’s descent into hostility and madness.
The absolutely admirable thing that THE WITCH establishes early in the film is that this is unapologetically a horror film. Too often artier genre fare keep the audience guessing if there is really a monster or if the characters are hysterical. Very early in THE WITCH we see that the family has far more to fear than their own insecurities and that God is not protecting them. The family members continue their internal bickering and devotion to Christian tenants, but the audience knows more than they do about the threat that looms in the forest.
At first glance THE WITCH does not offer anything we have not seen before in horror film, but it instead elevates the material to new heights. The film itself is paced deliberately, and eases you into the story. It is shot beautifully; several frames could be mistaken for gallery-quality photography. The music is at times invasive, but it always heightens the mood rather than detracts from it. The performances are also leagues ahead of what I had anticipated. Even with much of the dialogue coming directly from documents of the era, we still get to know these sympathetic and complicated characters as individuals as well as a complicated family. And without giving a major spoiler, I will say that THE WITCH has one of the most haunting death scenes I have ever seen on film. It is as if you are looking pure evil directly in the eye, and it is not pretty.
Perhaps due to some sort of satanic intervention all of this comes from a director who had not yet created a feature film prior to THE WITCH. Robert Eggers shows some authentic vision in THE WITCH, and during his Q&A following the Fantastic Fest screening it became evident that film was not a success by accident. He has carefully thought out and created this addition to an ignored sub-genre. I cannot fathom why A24 is waiting so long and dumping the film’s release date in late February, but be sure to run to the theater when you can.