THE WITCH (USA 2015) ****
Directed by Roger Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Review by Gilbert Seah
Set in 17th Century New England, writer/director Roger Eggers (whose background is in production design and theatre) has mounted more than a handsome production in his chilling horror debut. Looking like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT from the frequent flickering lighting (though the comparison does not do THE WITCH, the better film justice) and Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE from the period setting, the story follows a newly settled New England family from England.
When the film opens, we hear dialogue which informs the audience that the family has just been banished from the village due to witchcraft, details unspecified. They settle on their own on the forest outskirts. The religious family is comprised of William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children. The film centres on the daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is made to look after her infant sibling while the parents toil the land. But the baby suddenly goes missing (never explained how in the film, but assumed to be taken by a wolf), and Thomasin has no explanation either.
William and Kate descend into hysteria. Did the evil in the woods take their unbaptized child? Their twin children, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), blame Thomasin but their own behaviour has become disturbingly suspect. Middle child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) takes it upon himself to search for the answer with dire consequences. Thomasin admits to being a witch to scare the twins into silence but it backfires on her.
The film has certain unexplained scenes like an actual witch that appears and kisses Caleb. The other is the possession of the twins.
The film succeeds for two reasons. One is its ambiguity which makes everything all the more mysterious and scary. Is the family descending into religious madness or are there supernatural forces afoot? But the film falls apart when director Eggers shows actual demonic forces in motion. Second is the scary effects created by the light, setting and soundtrack. The characters speak with an old Northern England accent and old English which takes a while to get used to. Sample dialogue: “What’s the matter with thee? Come hither!” The story is supposed to be based on folklore and the dialogue adapted directly from old literature.
But THE WITCH is a very scary film- not scary in the form of the typical B-horror flick but in genuine fear of the unknown. Religion and superstition drive the family part. Trust in God appears to be the answer for the family, but faith is obviously not enough. The desperation of the family is on clear display and examination here. Eggers shows differing points of view, from the daughter to the father, mother and even the brother., while always centring on Thomasin. Eggers knows how to create a sense of evil from almost any prop, from the goat, to the evil stare of the rabbit, to the woods to the omnipresent darkness. THE WITCH also contains very disturbing images, made even scarier because often, it is hard to make out exactly what is depicted, and much is left to the imagination. The scariest image is the crow picking at the mother’s breast. Evil, indeed takes many forms.
Altogether a very impressive film debut by Eggers and definitely a most chilling one.