Independent or arthouse horror has had a couple of notable hits in the last year or two with The Babadook and It Follows and whilst it deserves to sit alongside the both of them as a terrific film, The Witch is very much it’s own beast and deserves to be approached as such.
Aptly described as a New England Folk tale, The Witch transports us to 17th century New England where an English family set up a new home for themselves on the edge of an imposing forest, after being expelled from the local township. The family unit soon begins to crack when their young baby is snatched from under the nose of eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).
It takes time to attune to the period accurate dialogue, but this only adds to the apparent authenticity. It also demonstrates Eggers’ trust in the audience to be willing to give his film their undivided attention. Not that you’re likely to be inattentive, as Eggers doesn’t hold back his twists and scares just for the final act. The routine chopping of wood is used to keep you tensed and uneasy, but the truly horrifying moments come from Eggers’ unembellished delivery of deranged and depraved images that imprint on your retinas and refuse to leave. The Witch certainly isn’t the most overtly scary film, but its impact remains in the days and weeks that follow.
The wholly committed cast thrive on these challenging roles, from the more recognisable Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as the weary parents William and Katherine through to Anya Taylor-Joy: a virtual newcomer whose fearless performance completely sells the utter turmoil that Thomasin faces. A word too on the remarkable Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson who, as the two lively children, manage to make simple childhood frivolity seem unhinged and creepy. It’s often possible to draw out the desired response in a child’s performance by using a situation that they will understand, but how Eggers’ has managed to get performances from 4 or 5 year olds that suggest demonic possession and complete innocence at the same time is beyond me.
The story here is a composed and balanced one that toys with ambiguity in meaningful ways, whereby the withholding of information or specific approach taken to conveying it invites different interpretations, rather than just stopping the story before it’s finished. It’s akin to Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills but infused with the sinister nature of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and the slipperiness of Carol Morley’s The Falling.
It’s lazy and misguided to market any film as ‘the scariest film ever’ as a representation of its perceived quality as this sets a limitless boundary that will inevitably leave many unsatisfied. Thankfully, distributors have kept faith that Eggers’ terrifying vision will draw audiences to the film and I hope that many will respond to it. Despite whatever comparisons I can give, The Witch is completely its own spine tingling entity.
The Witch is released in UK cinemas on Friday 11th March 2016
Screened at the 29th Leeds International Film Festival (2015).