Fantastic Fest 2015: Robert Eggers' Unique & Evil Horror 'The Witch'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 28, 2015
As far as film debuts go, they don't come as terrifying as writer/director Robert Eggers' The Witch. A stunningly simple, period, family drama with loads of gothic mood and dripping with atmosphere, it isn't a horror that will appease genre fans wanting a jump-scare every 15 minutes. Nor will it satiate gore-hounds looking for blood and guts strewn throughout. The Witch, instead, draws its horror from the unseen forces at work in the universe that slowly, but surely, breaks down a family until there's hardly anything, maybe nothing at all, left. Every scene of Eggers' film is crafted with an inherent tension, every shot a gorgeous composition of wood, dirt and fog. The Witch doesn't have an immediate impact, but it damn sure festers.
Making up that family unit at the center of the story are the parents, William and Katherine, played by "Game of Thrones" co-stars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie. They're doing their best to make a life in colonial 1630's New England, and a better home for their five children: eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); oldest son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw); the son-and-daughter twins, Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Elle Grainger); and an infant child.
The family is forced to reside on a small farm on the edge of the woods, William having been banished from the nearby township for religious differences with the township. He believes in the Lord's law by any and all measures and desires to raise God-fearing children in the harsh world. Matters are difficult enough when, while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with the baby outside, the infant disappears, seemingly drug into the woods by what the family believes to be a wolf. This event begins a downward spiral of the family structure, their mental states, and their spiritual beliefs.
Eggers doesn't take long in introducing us to the eponymous creature: an aged woman with sagging skin tramps naked through the woods making pacts with the Devil. It's this choice in revealing his protagonist early enough that, when he takes us back to the farm for the much of the film's remainder, we're left with an uneasy feeling for its entirety. Every scene whether it's father and oldest son hunting in the woods, the family saying their prayers before dinner, or the twins playing with their new friend – a goat with black fur who the twins say wants to be called Black Phillip – is at the height of suspense. The fear that comes from The Witch isn't in what Eggers chooses to show us or how he frames it. The fear comes in everything Eggers chooses to not show his audience even though we know with 100% certainty there is something dark and dangerous surrounding this farm.
With cinematographer Jarin Blaschke's lens capturing the imagery aided by production designer Craig Lathrop, every frame of The Witch is a stunning work of American, colonial art. The smoky interiors of the family's home and the foggy, rustic exteriors outside of the farm are beautifully captured, the compositions of Blaschke's frame working at the very best level. The tone it provides enhances the already unnerving wrench Eggers has ratcheting up the story's tension.
Eggers' work with his actors is another absolute plus with The Witch. Ineson speaks with a voice that has brute force, all the more unsettling when the character shows vulnerability. Dickie is equally sharp, subtly letting the mother's mental instability show. All the child actors are grounded and real, a definite positive, but it's Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin who really stands out. The young actress stands with as much presence as any of the adults, and she gives an air of strength that every bit as strong as Ineson's father figure. Joy shows a hell of an amount of range with her character, probably even more than that which the character requires, but it serves the exceptional work as a whole well.
Exceptional, it is. With his first film, Robert Eggers has already set himself apart from other filmmakers working in the horror genre. The Witch is a unique blend of religious horror and American, family drama that stays in the viewer's mind with an incredible amount of grip. It isn't pulse-pounding. There are maybe one or two actual jump-scares. Regardless, for the undeniable pressure of its mood and the unsettling, evil presence that seems glossed over every frame, The Witch is a horror fan's delight.
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