Robert Eggers directorial debut The Witch is nothing short of a horror masterclass. While so many films within this particular genre remain endearingly ambitious, creating supernatural landscapes and boasting a myriad of archetypal antagonists, ranging from ghosts, to zombies to aliens. They so often tumble at the common hurdle that is the narrative, being all too complex and convoluted, as the filmmakers attempt to somehow make sense of the arcane, fantastical tendencies. Yet Eggers has offered an immersive, visceral endeavour that proves where this genre is concerned, the atmosphere and tone can be the most paramount element in triggering fear from the viewer.
Set in 1630s New England, we meet an exiled family of settlers and religious fundamentalists, suffocated by their own sense of guilt, fearing they’ve sinned, wanting to cleanse themselves of any satanic tendencies. But it becomes hard to shake off when the eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing with the youngest member of the family, only for the baby to disappear in the blink of an eye. This tragedy tears her parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) apart, as the family turns on one another. Anxious that there are dark forces at play, infiltrating the young, vulnerable children – of which there are three others – what they hadn’t accounted for, was the Witch lurking in the woods.
The Witch is an indelible piece that is staggeringly disquieting, while managing to remain unique and resourceful in its execution, in spite of the popular cinematic stomping ground and setting this tale plays out in front of. The screenplay is accomplished and tight, and the acting is remarkable – particularly from youngsters Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays middle child Caleb. But the true winner here is simplicity, as The Witch is a film that bears such a straightforward premise and is all the better for it, without ideas above its station, affectionately remaining within its means. But that’s not to say we’re dealing with a single-layered piece, for there are many aspects to this nuanced production – with religion, satanic folklore and female sexuality all prevalent themes.
The one criticism is based upon pre-established expectation, which is that the film is not particularly scary. The Witch is chilling and eerie, and makes for distinctively uncomfortable viewing – but there are few genuine scares on show, nor moments that’ll have you jumping out of your seat. But the film cannot be judged on those terms – it’s not vying for such a reaction, it’s simply telling a story, and telling it remarkably well. But having heard so many people discuss this film since its Sundance debut last year, it’s hard not to be a little underwhelmed when realising it is not quite as terrifying as it had been billed to be.