As soon as I saw the trailer for first time writer and director Robert Eggers’ wonderfully and creepily ambiguous film The Witch, I was salivating for more. Much like last year’s It Follows, it had an immediate draw with it’s atmosphere and, where the synth score drove the It Follows ads (and film really) The Witch has a terrifying cadence in the trailer’s sound design. Promising to be the first horror film of 2016 to actually get a rise out of the audience, February couldn’t come quick enough so I could get my eyeballs all over this thing.
Reviewing horror films in Vancouver is a real crap shoot. It feels pretty rare for studios to give us an advanced look at them because, for one, they seemingly don’t require these films to get graded or, for two, they don’t have faith that the critical response will be favorable and might mar their ad campaign. For some movies this is true. The Forest was something that maybe could have just gained interest by the subject matter but got screened for us and we destroyed it because, well, it’s terrible. On the unfortunate side, we, the press, missed out on Krampus, a rare Christmas horror, that actually got some fun reviews. That kind of bums me out, but hey, we got to see The Witch a little less than two weeks early.
The film opens on our main characters, a family of seven, as they are being exiled from their group of settlers in 1630s New England. The reason isn’t entirely clear to why they’re being thrust out on their own but it’s clear that William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch of the family, isn’t sticking around to fight this ruling. After a long journey, William and his wife Katherine find a stretch of land to settle in and make their farm with their children including their oldest daughter Thomasin, their son Caleb, young twins Mercy and Jonas and baby Thomas. Hoping to continue in their regular devout Puritan ways, William has hopes to regain what he once lost, pride and respect.
Things go horribly almost immediately. Although Thomasin has been left to watch her baby brother – the infant is abducted into the woods by a cloaked figure, unseen by her. This puts Katherine into an inconsolable depression from which it is apparent she will never recover from. This also calls Thomasin’s motivations and actions into doubt, as the family has no way in which to believe her. Only we, the audience, have been privy to what really happened. What results is constant suspicion and even more curse-like activities descending on the family and forcing them apart little by little.
It must be said that this film will not appeal to everyone and a lot of people are going to be left cold by the really short hour and a half run time and what seems to be a lack of closure. To me this film plays less as a horror and more as a drama thriller with supernatural qualities. Yes, we know there’s a witch involved with the story but it’s more an outside element within the destruction of this family. The patriarch and matriarch are the main drive of strife to which their religion is completely useless and may instead be much of the source of their ruin.
I can’t say I’m hugely knowledgeable on religion but it’s definitely easy to say that The Witch plays largely on this theme and may even have a larger message pertaining to our lead characters putting everything into the hands of their God, even in the ways that the parents interact with their children and eventually even damn them. I have a belief that each character except the one who is believed to be “colluding with the Devil” is completely sinful in their own small way, giving some backstory as to why they were banished from their own society. If anything, this film will get you talking about this subject and rooting through the deeper meaning that Robert Eggers peppers throughout the fibre of this story.
This film also has some of the most disturbing animal “acting” I have ever seen. The goat character of “Black Phillip” is some of the most mind boggling and creepy non CG animal work I have ever seen. To see this animal almost dance on two legs is mesmerizing, heading towards a climax that I’m still marveling over. It’s just one of the many things that Eggers captivates you with, moving brilliantly alongside his incredible command of the camera. His direction of this goat, a special little rabbit and our young child actors is simply astonishing.
The Witch will long plague me with it’s eye popping imagery, the portrayal of the suffering of one family who continues to suffer the same mistakes and an ending that will leave your jaw on the floor. I will need another one or two viewings to completely unwrap the folklore inspired tale that this promising writer/director has provided. The other thing that will stick for everyone is the sheer creepiness that is incredibly hard to shake. I give The Witch a four and a half out of five.