Whatever fate might befall humanity, the horror story will always remain with us. Fear of the unknown, or perhaps the threat of the unknown rising to enact some terrible plan, is a powerful and perhaps essential component of the soul. There will always be something just outside our understanding which threatens to destroy everything we hold dear. Robert Eggers’ debut feature, The Witch, drills down to the part of us that is most afraid and exposes the ugliness it creates.
Set in 17th Century Puritan New England, a fearful time and place if there ever was one, a devout family is exiled from a plantation for the ambiguous sin of ‘prideful conceit’. With no choice but to survive on their own, they settle in a clearing at the edge of a thick forest. While the father, William, (Ralph Inerson) chops wood and tends to his failing corn crop, the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) finds herself trapped between the fun and rhymes of youth and the burgeoning terror of what it might mean to be an adult in her world. When tragedy strikes, the family turn on each other as darkness sets in.
This might seem like the stuff of fairy tales ,and it is-deliberately so. Much of the plot, right down to the dialogue, is taken from historical sources, which gives the period language a rare sense of authenticity. It’s replete with twice-removed samples of songs and games which have survived to the present day, but in this environment they take on the affect of ritual, not so much endearing tales for children as parables on survival. Eggers evokes classic folk imagery from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel, imbuing them with a sense of dread that hews far closer to their original form. Eggers’ camera is still and watchful, finding its subjects enclosed within the artful yet claustrophobic framing of a woodcut print- forever trapped within their tiny home or engulfed in the black expanse of the forest that lies dormant at the edge of their vision.
The Witch is a deeply serious film, and it’s this unusual feature that might inhibit box office success. In an era of low rent franchise and comedy/horror mash-ups, its slow burn austerity feels refreshingly out of place. However, their advertising campaign is well intentioned but misleading. Neither a quick-cut gorefest nor campy romp through history, audiences expecting either might be disappointed. The trailers promise a different film than the one that was made, so to enjoy what this film has to offer its best to ignore or avoid them entirely.
For his first feature writer/director Robert Eggers has achieved a series of unlikely milestones- taking some literally ancient tropes and infusing them with vitality, guided compelling performances from no less than four young actors, not to mention using a goat as an antagonistic force. There’s not much out there that plays quite like this film, but it might make a good double feature with the original Wicker Man, both stories of oppression, ritual, and what might happen if the rules that bind us start to break. The Witch is an exciting debut from a director with a promising future.