he Witch (suitably stylised as The VVitch), the feature-length debut and Sundance triumph from Robert Eggers, manages to derive its terror not only from witchcraft, but from the unknown, claustrophobia, the fear of God and the bleak landscape. The 17th century. New England. a family is excommunicated from a Puritan Christian plantation for “prideful conceit.” The exiled family must survive on their own farm, out in the wilds near a forest.
The family, father William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) their son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and their young twin children Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) provide the sparse main cast. Months after their exile, Katherine gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel. When the unbaptised baby vanishes, apparently abducted by a witch, Katherine is distraught, spending her days praying to God and weeping.
As the plot slowly unravels like a camp fire tale, it draws us in with its folkloric disquiet. The whole cast delivers pragmatically naturalist performances. Eggers’ script clearly had authenticity in mind, the dialogue is an historically accurate representation of Puritan dialect. In fact, Eggers’ script lifts some dialogue directly from Puritan prayer manuals. The film draws on concepts so archetypal, they would verge on being outmoded had they been handled with less care. We fear God with these characters, their desperation as they beg for mercy instils an anxiety within us – we want their prayers to be answered.
The dialogue’s archaic validity is matched by the film’s eerily plausible visuals. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot The Witch in a 1.66 aspect ratio, giving a timeless, claustrophobic feel to cinema audiences who presume the use of widescreen. The woods seem taller, and the huts more enclosed. Predominantly natural lighting was used for exterior shots, and interiors are often shot by candlelight, giving the film the genuine visual aesthetic of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). The colour palette is bleak and subdued, adding to the palpable hopelessness.
The film continuously plays with genre convention, while other horror texts would rely on jump-scares and gory imagery, The Witch derives its trepidation from escalating dread, constructing an experience that is as tight as a drum. In one particularly well-crafted sequence, inordinate tension is drawn from wood chopping, using a combination of excellent editing and sound design. The film-makers even manage to find fear from an unlikely source – a hare. While not without its shocking moments, the film primarily unnerves us through suggestion, and what lies beyond its narrow frame.
Cinema audiences will of course associate witches with the low-budget, found footage style of The Blair Witch Project (1999). But The Witch stands apart by tracing its subject matter back to its roots, capturing colonial America’s first witch hysteria, in a setting 62 years before the notorious Salem Witch Trials. In deriving fear from the archetypal and loosely building on a foundation of historical records, Eggers manages through sheer verisimilitude to deliver what is a novel experience.
Building gradually towards its comparatively explicit – albeit somewhat ambiguous – crescendo, this is a film which gets under the skin, but the real horror only sets in once we have left the cinema. The film’s authenticity leaves us feeling unsettled, as if we have flipped through a dusty occult manuscript we were not meant to see. The Witch is an extraordinary achievement for the horror genre, and a promising first offering from newcomer writer-director Robert Eggers.