The Witch is a story of folklore, pieced together from various documented historic accounts of dark deeds and happenings alleged to have transpired in New England in the sixteen hundreds.
A devoutly christian family having relocated from their farmstead in England have set up their home and joyless religious existence on the edge of an impenetrable woodland.
Here they live a simple life of subsistence until one day, from virtually right under the nose of eldest child, Thomasin, (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s newborn child disappears, never to be seen again.
There follows some brief footage of the baby in the hands of a naked presence, illuminated by fire light, in the middle of the woodland. This renders redundant – though not to their knowledge – the family’s certainty that the baby had been snatched by a predatory wolf.
A period of deep mourning and much religious, verbal self-flagellation follows – as though this doleful family needed another excuse for such dispirited behaviour!
Sadly for them, it’s merely the start of a catalogue of cursed happenings.
With the family’s corn crop inexplicably failing and a gathering belief in their minds that the devil is very much at work amongst them, an ever increasing level of in-fighting and peculiar behaviour envelops the family. Emboldened though by an unshakable religious fervour, they seek to rid themselves of that which is fast becoming impossible to repudiate; they are under some sort of evil curse.
As the succession of disquieting occurrences mounts up, the family – at their wits’ end -perform ever more exasperated religious rituals and procedures, desperate to restore some semblance of normality to their lives once again.
If only it was so easy.
Director Robert Eggers paints a very bleak picture here in The Witch. Indeed, if we were to pick a handful of textbook elements generally deemed necessary to construct a successful horror film, this ‘bleakness’ is just one of many boxes successfully ticked in this tale of good and evil.
William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) stern, Puritan collective persona, the cold unfamiliarity of the use of an olde English dialect, the possessed, synchronised over exuberance of a pair of creepy twins, and the demonised movements and bleatings of Black Phillip, the goat, are all, in their way, classic staples of the horror genre, and when underpinned by a sparing use of Mark Korven’s discordant, glissando string and eerie vocal score, they serve to lend The Witch seemingly all the ingredients necessary with which to achieve a truly memorable and unsettling outcome.
On the one hand I’m in agreement with those that believe The Witch to be a well-worked and engaging piece and one that does indeed play upon its audience’s fears of witchcraft, the dark arts and the occult… to a point.
On the other hand, I’m also in agreement that there’s definitely something missing; for whilst the film’s bleak, doomed outlook, relentlessly sinister atmosphere and scenes of crazed possession carry it so far, the real question, as with all horror films, remains: “Does The Witch truly get under the skin and generate genuine discomfort and fear in its audience…?”
As nobly as it tries – and it really does – not for this particular viewer.
I suppose a ‘horror’ film must live and die by such criteria which in this case is a shame, as with a few notable scene exceptions, it can’t be said that The Witch truly delivers on that front. Taken however as an interesting, at times strange and slightly unsettling piece, full of atmosphere, The Witch is memorable, perfectly decent and more than deserves an audience.