A New England folk tale. The old-fashioned kind. There’s blood and such
“What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our father’s houses. For what?”
The Witch opens with the expulsion of a family from a Puritanical colonial community, essentially for being too religious and for thinking that the rest of the people are not holding themselves to high enough standards. They strike out on their own, building a new home on the edge of the woods, away from all other civilization. Not long after this, strange events befall the family which cannot be explained.
The Witch made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, where it could easily have been relegated to the midnight movies section. However, this horror tale was instead put into the Dramatic Competition, and Robert Eggers was awarded the Best Director prize for his debut. Of late, there’s always buzz around some new horror or genre “classic” making its way out of the major film festival circuit. Often, these are decent or pretty good movies, and occasionally there is a masterpiece (Let the Right One In comes to mind), but rarely do they live up to the kind of hype that is generated. The Witch is a different breed. It is not a genre piece, which is a slight cut above the rest. It is a film that incorporates horror elements, and concerns itself more with building true dramatic tension than milking a few jump scares.
The eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is decidedly the lead in what is truly an ensemble piece – it is through her eyes that we view most of the story. Second to her is younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), whom the audience also accompanies into dark territory. The children are trying their best to make sense of an increasingly terrifying and confusing world. Add to that they have parents who are too strict for the Puritan crowd, and these kids are having one hell of a coming-of-age. These purer-than-thou parents are William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), both of whom Game of Thrones fans will recognize from supporting roles in the series.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but particularly impressive to a lot of Fantastic Fest-goers were the children. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw both had only a small role or two in short films and TV before taking on these daunting parts. They both acquit themselves incredibly well, turning in layered and complex performances. In addition, there are preschool-aged twin siblings, Mercy and Jonas (played by non-twins Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson). These two are impressive in their self-possession and true naturalism. They don’t appear overly coached in their line readings and reactions – anyone who has ever worked with children this young knows how difficult it can be to achieve this. Adding in the period-appropriate dialogue and inflections, the performances are even more wondrous.
At the Fantastic Fest Q&A, director Eggers discussed his method of getting such naturalistic and truly terrified performances out of his very young actors. He revealed that the young twins had been given a very G-rated “Disney version” of the story. When an audience member asked to hear this version, he replied that if someone came up to him after the film was over, he’d tell them in person. I respect this choice to keep an air of mystery about your story and its process. The desire to deliver fan service can often do more harm than good in modern film culture. Revealing how to achieve a great magic trick sometimes has its own satisfaction, but other times it only serves to strip away the wonderment.
In a recent three-part series with /Film’s Jacob Hall, director Eggers discussed the three films which most heavily influenced The Witch – The Shining, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, and Cries and Whispers. Earlier, I mentioned the emphasis on building up the dramatic tension. Eggers credits the Kubrickian journey through the Overlook Hotel with inspiring the tone of much of his film. “When I watch The Witch, sometimes I’m a little disgusted by how much of my film flagrantly reeks of The Shining.” Well, Mr. Eggers, I suggest you give yourself a break. If more horror movies these days reeked of The Shining, I think we’d all be better off.
A huge portion of the tone and atmosphere of the film are aided by the meticulously detailed production design (Craig Lathrop), set decoration (Mary Kirkland), and costumes (Linda Muir). The costumes are all hand-stitched or hand-woven, using only materials that would have been available at the time. Most of the set was built using only tools that would have been used in 1630, as this was largely the only way to achieve an authentic look. Director Eggers noted that “I think that authenticity for authenticity’s sake doesn’t really please me necessarily. […] I felt it was essential to create an utterly believable 17th century world where witches really did exist so we could believe in them in the same way that someone in the early modern period would have believed in a witch.” The effort from this technical team certainly paid off, and is especially impressive considering the relatively low budget of the film.
I don’t want to tell you why, but if you enjoy this film, part of it will probably be due to Black Phillip (the family goat). You may already have seen or heard about Phillip. He’s got a Twitter account, which I followed immediately after the screening at Fantastic Fest. I recommend following the page, but I also recommend waiting until after seeing the film to avoid spoiling certain elements. I’ve done my best to reveal as little as possible about the specifics of the plot, and I recommend going in as blind as you can. And, if you think a creepy and suspenseful drama set in this time period sounds at all up your alley, then just go see it as soon as you can.