Release date: 11th March 2016/Watch the trailer here
As the credits rolled on Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, The Witch, a group of fellow cinema-goers were loudly exclaiming that it was the worst film they’d ever watched. It was a statement that confused me – what were they expecting when they bought their tickets? A horror film, of course, but were they anticipating the relentless jump scares so commonly relied on in the majority of recent horrors? Horror is, and always has been, one of my favourite film genres, but it’s so rare to find an original, well-made and truly terrifying horror film nowadays. That is why The Witch feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that has been stale for a long time now.
While ‘the worst film ever’ may be an exaggeration, I can, however, understand why some people might not enjoy The Witch. It is slow-paced – the film’s dialogue based on writings from the seventeenth century – and to call it a true horror film would perhaps be misleading: a psychological thriller, crossed with a family period drama, crossed with a mystery would possibly be more apt. Think Arthur Miller’s The Crucible blended with the slow-burn horror and the ceaseless dread of 2014’s It Follows.
The Witch is set in 1630s New England, an environment which is painstakingly recreated for the film and constantly immersive. Devout Christians William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are forced to raise their five children on a farm on the very outskirts of civilisation following banishment from their Puritan community. The family begin to turn on one another as their infant son mysteriously disappears and their crops fail, until the family is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft and the evil that it represents.
The setting alone creates an instant atmosphere of horror: a bleak farm surrounded by an impassible forest, The Witch is claustrophobic from the word go. The soundtrack, too, is intensely creepy, but even creepier are the extended periods of silence employed throughout the film – I learned the hard way that this is not a popcorn film. It’s strange just how disconcerting silence can be.
The immersive experience of The Witch is partly due to the keen eye for detail of its production designer and the extensive research carried out by Eggers, but it can also be credited to some fantastic acting by its cast. The young actors – in particular Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest daughter, Thomasin – are especially impressive, not once stumbling or struggling with the old-fashioned dialect and staying constantly believable, even as the hysteria and the tension ramp up throughout the course of the film.
And that is where the real horror of The Witch lies – in the slowly mounting atmosphere of tension and unease. You know that something is about to happen, but you don’t know what. The Witch is filled with horrifying images that are difficult to forget, but it is subtle in its terror – it is the things that we don’t see, that are left to our imagination, that are the most unsettling.
The Witch is a claustrophobic, suffocating and thoroughly uncomfortable experience – and I mean that in the best possible way, because that is everything that a horror film should be.